There is a commotion in the side yard. My eight-year-old sister Regan rushes up the decayed front porch steps, bangs open the screen door and stands in the living room hollering:
“Mommy, they’re holding Blinky upside down! The mean boys in the playhouse won’t leave!”
“Jimmy! Come down here and tell your friends to put the turtle down and go home,” my mother Molly hollers. “Tell them to leave.”
These guys, whoever they are, can’t be my friends. My only friend so far, Ray Higley, left hours ago.
“I’m busy, Mom!” I said, hoping the matter would evaporate without my involvement.
“Do not call me Mom! Address me as ‘Mother’. I am not now, nor will I ever be your ‘Mom’. I’m your mother! Do you understand me?”
Mom placed her tattered paperback sci-fi novel on the coffee table and walked out to the playhouse, a six foot by eight foot wood and canvas structure built by ‘Uncle’ Bud two weeks ago, just before school started. She pokes her head through the canvas flap over the doorway. Mel Prince and Skip Calvin are sitting low on the upturned milk crates that Bud picked up from the local grocery. They are sixth graders, one year ahead of me. I have seen them at school and seen their schoolyard intimidations from a distance. They are both smoking.
“It’s time for you boys to leave,” Mom said in her most civil tone. There was a brief pause.
“Go fuck yourself,” said Prince, in a quiet, menacing tone, exhaling smoke with his words. He is just over five feet tall with a greasy, blond duck’s ass haircut.
Mom drew back from the doorway in shock and fear as if hit by a wrenching blast of pure ammonia.
“You can’t talk to me like that, you little monster!”
“Get yer snatch back in yer house. We’ll leave when we’re fuckin’ ready, you skinny fuck,” said Calvin, the shorter of the two with a buzz cut and a crooked nose.
Mom withdrew in fear and amazement and walked quickly around the house and back up the front steps. She called me from the living room.
“Jimmy! Get down here this minute!” she said, in an uncharacteristically shaky voice. “Get those two little bastards out of my yard! They called me the ‘F’ word! Get out there and defend your mother! You’re the man of the house now. I want those boys out of my yard immediately. Go out there and tell them!”
I walked out the front door and very slowly around to the playhouse. I could see two shadows against the canvas walls. I had thoroughly absorbed my mother’s fear into my guts, heart, and brain. I stood in the doorway of the smoke-filled playhouse. I tried to settle my shaking. I had never seen either Mel Prince or Skip Calvin this close. I felt like I was invading their territory. Prince and Calvin were bathed in canvas piss-colored yellow light.
“What the cocksuck do you want?” said Prince.
“Uuummmmmm, hi guys! How’s it goin’? That’s our turtle Blinky you’ve got there,” I said, very quietly.
“Eat shit you fifth-grade fuck,” Calvin said, looking down at his black, floppy oversize motorcycle boots and stubbing his cigarette out on Blinky’s back.
I was too frightened to speak. I stood in the doorway another few seconds frozen in fear. Prince flung his lit cigarette into my chest and I returned to the house.
“Did you get those little bastards to leave?” asked mother.
“Umm, yeah, I guess so.”
“What do you mean, you guess so? Are they gone?”
“They said they were going to leave soon.”
Prince and Calvin moseyed away and the problem evaporated. I was saved further humiliation and a possible beating. Most of the guys in Perry Flats with older brothers were a problem. ***
Spokane, Washington, is the “Heart” of the Inland Empire. It is the Lilac City. It is early autumn. We have lived in this neighborhood for one month and I have already been shot in the ear with a load of hard, spit-wet peas by a boy unknown to me as I walked past the Farmer’s Market with my thirteen-year-old sister, Teresa. I was shocked and in considerable pain from this unprovoked, close-range, walk-by attack just across the street from our house. It set the keynote for life in this neighborhood, this part of town. I didn’t retaliate for the attack. I said nothing. If Teresa didn’t notice and I didn’t say anything then I wouldn’t be a known coward for not answering the assault, just a coward in my nine-year-old heart. Perhaps not quite as bad, but word gets around on these matters. I was quickly learning that there was a menacing pall over the Flats, unmistakably present on the most radiant, crisp autumn days, the cold, clear, snow-crunching days of winter, and during the fragrant, warm, windy days of spring. It was always dangerous outdoors and sad, dramatic, and more than a little crazy indoors.
The address on Perry was our twenty-fifth since my birth nine years previously. There would be forty by the time I started high school. We moved for a variety of reasons, but primarily because my father’s job changed or my mother was entering or exiting a mental institution. We lived with different relatives, with a foster family and in two institutions for children that were stops between homes where either my mother alone, my father alone, or both parents were present. By the time we moved into the house on Perry, my parents had been divorced for two years. This was a very big relief. They were both vicious fighters, screamers, scratchers, sluggers, knife-wielding crazies who never missed an evening of trying to damage one another when in the same house. All of the moving provided an immense variety for growing minds, new cities, new smells, new trees, new weather, new friends, new enemies, all new—all the time. The only real downside to the perpetual variety was the increasing density of phonics. School was like a big splotchy collage where some subjects got repeated over and over and others fell through the cracks. Where was I when my peers were learning what an adverb is? I missed adverbs and also gerunds. I averaged 2.6 schools a year until fifth grade in Perry Flats, then continued that average until high school after we moved from Perry. There were sixteen different schools by the time we settled down for my high school years.
Why did my father’s job change so much? He had a short temper, an enormous ego, overweening pride, and five years of physical and emotional trauma in World War II. He was very hard of hearing from his wartime heroics. This volatile combination made it difficult for him to submit to authority. He was a brilliant and well-loved leader of men but as soon as he had to follow, he was caught in an emotional meat grinder that chewed him up and sent him off to a new job. There was always an authority figure whose “asshole he wouldn’t piss up if his guts were on fire.”
Why was my mother coming and going from mental institutions? She was a severely neglected and abused child. Her immense beauty and promiscuity and innate loathing for men made her a center of turmoil. She was a very magnetic force who drew people toward her and charged them full of energy, much of it destructive. The year we lived in Perry Flats was a year of relative calm for her--a year of recovery from a decade in hell during which she attempted suicide four times. It was the jump from a bridge in Richland into the Columbia River in 1955 that got people’s attention in ways that the slashed wrists failed to do. ***
A ’54 Chevy convertible slows down alongside me as I approach our house on Perry Street. It stops several feet ahead and a guy leans over to the passenger side. He’s clean-cut, looks like a member of the Kingston Trio, a college man, Gonzaga.
“Hey there young fella!” he says, in a friendly tone as I walked near his car. I stopped and turned towards him. “How would you like to earn some money?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I’ve got a paper route opening up in a few days, ‘Chronicle,’ ever heard of the ‘Spokane Chronicle’?”
“It’s the afternoon paper. I’ve got a real nice route opening up, s’got your name on it, seventy subscribers plus or minus. If you can hustle you can add new customers every week. You could easily make twenty-five or thirty dollars a month. My name’s Dave, by the way, what’s yours?”
“I like the ring of it.”
Dave was very persuasive. Thirty dollars a month seemed like an enormous amount of money for a fifth grader. I couldn’t imagine how it could be true but he seemed to be honest. Dave handed me a document to sign and I took it with enthusiasm.
“Have your Mom and Dad sign this and I’ll stop by tomorrow to drive you over to the distribution shed.”
“My Dad’s not here.”
“OK, your Mom.”
The last time I recall receiving any money at all was two years ago. A that time, my allowance was twenty-five cents a week and it was enough to keep me entertained throughout a weekend. Thirty dollars a month was beyond imagining. Mom would be very happy. ***
I met district route manager Dave the following day in front of our house after school. He drove me a mile up to the IGA supermarket parking lot. The newspaper shack was about the size of Regan’s playhouse but not nearly as menacing. It was painted dark green and had a plywood front panel attached to the overhanging eave with a screw hook. There were twelve or so boys horsing around waiting for their Thursday pep talk before dispersing to their nearby routes, most of them within a half-mile radius of the shack. I was introduced. Being the new kid wasn’t so difficult. I was beginning my ninth grade school. I was the center of attention for a few seconds, then Dave began a brief spiel emphasizing the importance of signing new subscribers and maintaining excellent service to all present subscribers. When he finished, Dave drove me to my street corner with Ron, a tall, gaunt boy of fifteen. This would be Ron’s last day on the Trent Street route, and my first day. Dave dropped us off down on Trent, a block from the mighty Spokane River. We were more than two miles from the shack. This was the most remote of Dave’s routes. It was by far the most complex, with its many cul-de-sacs, apartment buildings, dead-end roads, isolated houses on large properties, and an ever-changing cluster of bars, cafes, and auto repair shops along Trent Street. Ron had all of the addresses written out in his scribbly scrawl in dim pencil, one per page in the route book. This ratty assemblage of pages would be my only connection to my customers, the key that held the secrets of the labyrinth that was my route. By the time we loaded up Ron’s airy, fraying canvas bag with the freshly folded papers and set out, it was early evening. Ron didn’t have much to say as we trudged along. He would grumble about someone always being late with their $2.25 per month payment. He groused about people’s pretending not to be home when he knocked and spoke the brief incantation that launched people for their wallets or into their excuses that meant coming back on another night and perhaps still another to finally receive payment: “Collect for the Chronicle.” This was the other side of the tracks. These were poor people. This neighborhood was every bit as depressed as my own but its geography was medieval rather than Cartesian. The streets on my route were primarily paved and unpaved cow paths. It was a hilly route. There were many homes that were tucked in clusters of four or five up a dead-end street or against a field of broken cars and weeds. There were homes backed up against the General Mills rail yards. As we neared the end of this initiation, Ron offered to let me carry the newspaper bags. We had twenty-five papers remaining. The bag was still a little heavy but it felt good. Ron showed me a couple of ways to fold a paper and how to get the Wednesday bags onto my shoulders. Wednesday was advertising supplement day for the grocery industry and the seventy-five papers weighed as much as one hundred papers from any other day of the week except Sunday. I didn’t deliver a Sunday paper. Ron had a few remaining collections to make as we finished up the route. It was well after dark. One of the last houses had an open garage door. Ron peeked in and spotted a twenty-four-bottle case of Oly stubbies, Olympia beer in small glass bottles. He took it as we left the yard and hiked the case to his shoulder.
“Those fuckers never pay on time.”
We walked back up Trent Street and delivered the last seven papers to the commercial establishments, The “Friendly” Tavern, Rita’s Grille, AAA Auto Repair, Morton Tool and Die, Vicker’s Sheet Metal, Dawn’s Park ‘n’ Pawn, and the local Goodwill retail outlet. Ron asked me if I wanted a beer, handed me the address list, and vanished. I never saw him again. I was still dumbfounded and a little scared by his thievery and thought to myself, “He’s not a good guy. He’s going to get in trouble someday. I’ll bet he’ll never be an engineer.”
I was on my own.***
We live at 102 South Perry. My mother lived with the owners of this house twenty years ago in this same neighborhood. She was commanded to leave home in Kinzua, Oregon, at sixteen for refusing to continue having sex with her father, a lumberjack named Bob Gilliland. Where was her mother? In the same bed. Her story is of the dark realm of alcohol mixed with work that was too hard. She came of age during the Depression. She sold apples on these streets. One of her customers, a prostitute, bought her a dress for her senior prom. At seventeen she rode away with Del Burton on the back of his Indian motorcycle. She returned with us.
Our house needs paint. It needs a new roof. It is a two-story wood frame structure with a gable roof over the second floor. The ceilings of our bedrooms are sloped but I don’t have to duck until I am near the walls. I am 4’10” tall. There are two dormers facing the street with one double-hung window in each. The ropes for the counterweights are rotted and I have to use a book or shoe to keep the heavy windows open in warm weather. There are two bedrooms upstairs, one for Regan and me and one for my two older sisters, Katie, sixteen, and Teresa, thirteen. Teresa is interested in science and art and she is intensely shy. Katie is not shy at all. She is a junior attending her twenty-second public school. I find it hard to believe but she can name them all and tell stories about all of the houses she/we lived in and lots of tales. Katy goes out with older guys she meets at her job as a cashier at the A&P. Most are airmen from Fairchild Airbase. We have been split up from one another on many occasions prior to moving to Perry Flats. ***
Mother’s bedroom is downstairs at the rear of the house next to the only bathroom. If we use the bathroom after she goes to sleep we must be very quiet. The slightest noise will awaken her or startle her into a bloodcurdling scream. She has frequent nightmares, night terrors, visitations from dark ghosts and incubi. She is a light sleeper. It is best to retire before she does and pee in a jar and empty it in the morning, rather than risk waking her. If you wake her, you are on her shit list for at least a couple of days.
We have a large Matisse print of a voluptuous woman in a striped dress in our bathroom facing the toilet bowl. We have a large framed print of Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth over our couch (my mother’s favorite painting), and we have a couple of Van Goghs and Cezanne’s “Breakfast Table” with its skewed perspective and very moody colors. Our record collection ranges from “My Boy Lollipop” to Richard Burton’s recording of “Hamlet,” lots of Chopin, and Mom’s favorite: Hayden String Quartets.
We didn’t have money but we had culture. Mother told us stories of Van Gogh’s life including the ear incident, which we all found disturbing. “The Diary of Anne Frank” was in theaters around this time, and this promoted several discussions of the Holocaust and the general plight of the Jews. Mom called us all into her bedroom the morning after we saw “Anne Frank” and we had a lengthy discussion of the trains and the gas ovens, followed by an explanation of sex, using the light bulb-light socket analogy. Katie left the room early—she already knew.
The cupboards in our kitchen were aligned with the top of the kitchen door at six feet eight inches. The kitchen ceiling was eight feet six inches high. The entire zone in that two feet was filled with over two hundred boxes of Post Bran Flakes that mother bought at a discount from her place of employment, Associated Grocers Wholesale. She said she never wanted to see us go hungry if anything were to happen to her. ***
I completed my first week of delivering papers with a large number of skips—-subscribers who did not receive their paper during the regular route, between 5:00 and 7:30 p.m., and who had called the Chronicle main office to complain. I received these calls until 8:30 or 9:00, then put my leather combat boots back on and headed out into the night, across the river and under the tracks, to try to find the houses in the dark that I couldn’t find during daylight. The concept of the house number was foreign to many of my customers. They knew where they lived. They had been living there for years. Why couldn’t I find their house? There were houses that I didn’t find during the entire ten months of my route. I never spent more than a half an hour looking for an address. I had papers to deliver. I had money to collect. It amazed me how many confusing directions I received from my customers. They knew where they lived, but they didn’t know north from east or west or south, or even left from right. I have since imagined a strong connection between poverty and dyslexia.
I liked my paper route a lot. I liked the brand new white canvas paper-carrying bag with its front and rear pouches with rain flaps. I love the smell of fresh canvas. I was very proud of having a job and deeply, intensely glad to be making money. I opened a bank account and saved at least twenty dollars a month. My mother never asked for a dime and I never gave her a dime, but neither did I ever ask her for money to buy gifts, movie tickets, sports equipment, or clothing. She paid the rent and bought food. ***
My sixteen-year-old sister Katy’s boyfriends look like famous killers: Gary Gilmore, Caryl Chessman, Richard Speck, like young men who have spent too much time in the back of Greyhound buses. Bughie is no exception. These fellows are quite tall with difficult complexions most likely caused by pox rather than acne. They wear chinos or blue jeans and loose shirts with the top two buttons undone. They have long hair in an early Elvis style with an oily claw of hair bisecting the forehead, sometimes concealing one eye. They have rat-tail combs and wide leather belts with large buckles used for fighting. Bughie is 6’4” tall and he weighs over 180 pounds. He is nineteen years old but he seems a lot older. He smiles a lot revealing missing canine teeth, which makes his large front teeth horse-like. He is a B-52 bomber engine mechanic at Fairchild Air Force Base during working hours that are never normal. The B-52 squadrons are on alert much of the time performing nuclear war drills. Bughie steals cars in his spare time. He and a friend hotwire cars in the city’s nicer neighborhoods, Buicks and Oldsmobiles for the most part, and bury them under sheets of plastic in pits in the pine woods north of Spokane. Bughie excavates the pits with a stolen D-8 Caterpillar tractor. A prediction of the Ant Farm’s conceptual art masterpiece, “Cadillac Ranch,” except Bughie’s cars are completely buried and the only art is his bravado. The secret here is that Bughie is not usually brave. He simply exists in a different world. ***
Tonight is Friday night. I have completed my first week delivering the “Chronicle.” It was a difficult week and it is clear that my $20 or $30 a month will not be easy money. Katy and Bughie are, as a very big favor to my mother, assuming childcare duties this evening for my younger sister Regan and myself, not that I need it. This assignment was created by my mother, who is spending the evening drinking with friends and is not certain when she will be returning. Bughie welcomes Regan and I into his plans for the evening. Katy makes her entrance from the narrow stairs wearing a moderately fuzzy, cream-colored sweater stretched tight over her very ample chest. Her slacks are tight, shiny, and black. Her hair is jet black and back-combed in a helmet with a curving spit curl covering each ear. Her lipstick is very red and she smiles in a cloud of Chanel No. 5. Bughie gives her a hug and we turn out the lights and head down the front steps out to Bughie’s incredible car, a chopped and channeled ’52 Chevy with 18 coats of metallic blue lacquer, solenoid door openers, rolled and pleated naugahide upholstery front and rear. There are ornate pinstripes here and there, and the name “Snatchwagon” written in very small, elegant script behind and above each front wheel well. In a conspiratorial whisper Bughie asked me: “Jimmy, do you know what snatch is?”
“No, what is it?” I replied.
He didn’t answer. We piled into the car. It started with a deep, resonant rumble, and we slowly pulled away from the curb. After only a few minutes of driving that barely got us out of the neighborhood, Bughie slowed down and pulled up alongside a parked Cadillac. We were in the Black neighborhood just a few blocks from our house. The street is poorly lit. Bughie fusses around at the back of the car while Katy keeps Regan and I entertained with the latest titles in the library of skid fiction: Under the Grandstand, by Seymour Butts; Yellow River, by I. P. Freely. It took a minute or two for the resonance of the humor to sink in. It was worth a chuckle. Bughie returned to the driver’s seat and we took off quickly as he wiped his mouth, spit, wiped and spit a few times. Katy looked concerned.
“What’s the matter honey?”
“Gotta get a new hose,” Bughie said, continuing to spit and wipe gasoline from his mouth on his loose silk shirt sleeve. “I gotta get the right hose for this shit.”
“Please don’t say shit around the kids honey,” Katy said.
I thought he was talking about nylon stockings. I was perplexed by the relationship of women’s hosiery to whatever he was doing behind the car a few minutes ago.
“What do you do with stockings?” I asked.
“Never mind, I’ll explain later, way later,” Bughie said, winking at Katy who had just figured out that he had been siphoning gas and couldn’t quite believe it. She knew Bughie was wild since the night he jumped out of his car and quickly pulled his belt from his loops and began wrapping it around his fingers as he approached a car full of high school greasers who had made a remark about her “rocket 88’s.” Now that we were all fueled up, Bughie drove towards Division Street where we all got out and entered a small grocery/drugstore where Bughie bought some unfiltered Camels. As we settled back into the car, he began pulling ice cream bars from the inside of his leather jacket. One for each of us. This was childcare at its most considerate. We arrived at the Rollerama at around 10:00 just as the Elvis medley began. Regan and I wobbled around for a few orbits. Bughie kept falling on his butt laughing and Katy seemed to be having a good time.
This place was skid central on a Friday night. The atmosphere seemed to grow more volatile as midnight approached. I was very tired from a day of school, the paper route, the trip for the skipped addresses, and the Bughie tour. Just as Katy was rounding us up to leave, one of the little leather-clad boys skated by and whispered: “Nice jugs,” to Katy. If Bughie were standing and the unfortunate doof could have seen the bulk and full potential menace, he surely would have kept his mouth shut, but alas. Bughie just waited for his return and as “King Creole” segued into “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” stuck out his long leg and tripped the leering lad, who launched forward, falling on his chest and chin. The young man collected himself and walked over to Bughie, who stood up towering over the boy by at least 8 inches. The boy turned and walked away with his fists clenched. As we walked to the car, we were followed by seven guys. Bughie pulled off his belt and wrapped it over his left fist. We just kept walking and no one said a word. We got in the car and drove home without further incident.
It was not likely that Bughie would ever be an engineer.
Bughie had an interesting slant on road rage. I don’t know if it was his typical behavior or if he was showing off for his audience, Katy, Regan, and myself. As we were driving home from the Rollerama to the sound of “Rockin’ Robin,” “Tom Dooley,” and “High School Sweater,” Bughie remarked, “This doofball is following too close.”
We all turned around to look. There was an elderly gentleman in a suit and a fedora driving an Oldsmobile sedan. Bughie wasted no time. He pulled over after a few more blocks of being tailgated.
“That’s all folks!” Bughie said, exasperated.
He let the car pass. The driver had the temerity, the stupidity, to look back as though Bughie was in error for driving the speed limit. At the next light Bughie set the parking brake oblivious to the cars behind him, reached over the seat and picked up a large, red pipe wrench. He quickly got out of the car, and while walking up to the Olds driver’s window, grasped the pipe wrench in a baseball bat grip and smashed in the left rear window. Bughie spoke loudly so we could all hear. His tone was authoritative: “You’re under arrest, motherfucker! Get out of the car and put your hands on the roof!”
“What in the hell! Who are you . . . you sonofa . . .”
“Shut the fuck up and put your hands on the roof, spread your legs. You’re under arrest, asshole!”
The driver complied and Bughie circled the car smashing out the headlights, the other side windows, and the taillights before returning to his car.
“Manners, manners, manners,” Bughie said, catching his breath from the exertion. “If they don’t learn at home, they learn from me.”
“God, Dick!” Katy said. “Did you have to be so rough? You scared the kids.”
Regan and I were laughing in the backseat from the excitement. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen in real life and a lot like something from an Elvis movie, maybe neater. I was intensely impressed and speechless for a few minutes, then I asked Bughie: “Who do you think is greater, Elvis or Ricky?”
Bughie replied that, although Elvis is the greater of the two, neither is as cool as Johnny Burnett. “Train Kept a-Rollin’” is the hottest song of all time, check it out.”
Saturday mornings I slept in until 8:00 then ate a bowl of Bran Blakes before turning on our black-and-white television set for the “Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw” show. Jon Gnagy was a remarkably fluent draftsman who had a fine grasp of perspective, chiaroscuro (shade and shadow, as he called it), and a very bold line, not to mention his powers of abstraction and his memory of scenes from commerce and nature. During each half-hour Saturday morning program, he would develop a scene, starting with a few bold lines, then adding and explaining as he progressed through the full and very rapid development of his motif. The most amazing scene was a countryside in the snow with a gently curving rutted road, narrowing in the distance with a tilting post and a show-covered mailbox on top. He brought this scene into pictorial reality with speed, accuracy, and vitality, with a few simple tools. I was convinced he was a magician or a genius or both. He had such a bold, confident line. As he added cornstalk stubble to the diminishing rows of snow-covered soil as well as the shadows, I was in awe. I had a very deep craving to acquire the skill of Jon Gnagy. I was a bit perplexed by the Matisse in the bathroom. Its lines seemed so tentative and hesitant compared to Mr. Gnagy’s lines, and the whole image of the woman was rather flat. It didn’t have that perspective magic with high contrast that Jon Gnagy brought to all his pictures. I asked my mother why we didn’t have any Jon Gnagy pictures on our walls. She said “Go find one and I’ll put it up.” A few weeks later I received a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw kit for my birthday and I was able to draw along with Jon during the program in my lame efforts to create the particular scene he was developing. I loved the smell of the newsprint, the almost edible quality of the kneaded eraser and the magical powers of the shading stomp, a rolled piece of fibrous paper that formed a fat stick with a point used for smearing charcoal, representing the play of light on a curving form. It was exciting. I amazed myself when I turned two three-dimensional overlapping line boxes into the head of a Great Dane. It was thrilling to discover this ability with the help of Jon Gnagy. He was the god of drawing.
Next up on Saturday morning was “’Fury’—The Story of a Horse and the Boy Who Loved Him,” then “Sky King.” Dad is coming this morning for a brief visit on his way to Sandpoint, Idaho where he has a new job as a logging road surveyor for the Forest Service. I haven’t seen my Dad since the time three months ago when he picked us up, minus my three sisters, from our Children’s Home (orphanage—except we weren’t orphans)—-the Hutton Settlement. Being singled out has its Moment of specialness, but the never-ending price to be paid by resentful sisters made it a costly bit of gratification. It wasn’t my idea to get special treatment. During those few weeks, I spent many hours in the passenger seat of Dad’s ’58 Chevy Forest Service pick-up. We traveled on dusty logging roads during the day, counted deer at dusk, and ate dinners in local cafes. My primary concern each night for the entire visit was that I not pee in Dad’s goose-down sleeping bag. I had been in a brief bed-wetting phase at the Hutton Settlement from baseball anxiety. I was very frightened every time at bat of being hit in the head by the ball. I failed to even connect with the ball for a respectable foul during the entire season. I released my anxiety at night. During the visit I prayed very hard for at least 10 minutes each night and thanked God each morning if the bag was dry. All of my prayers were answered one night at a time. It was a beautiful mystery to me. I was gaining new esteem with each dry morning, and was so immensely pleased not to have to be explaining anything to my big, powerful, heroic Dad, who was paying enormous amounts of attention to me, more than at any time before. He had become more of a legend in my life than real person as a result of his many long absences. By this time, my ninth year, I could only recall two or three years total time spent with him, and he usually seemed distracted. He lost much of his hearing during World War II, as a Chief Petty Officer on the deck of a destroyer, never far from the five-inch guns whose percussion tore his clothing and made his ears and nose bleed. He was also a diver, and lost much more hearing capacity diving near the coast of the Sea of Japan, checking Japanese mine cables 40 or 50 feet under water, for several minutes at a time. Once again his ears and nose would bleed from the pressure. He was always a brave man for his children. When I was five or six, I would stand next to him while he was reading in his easy chair, and ask him a question. I thought he was ignoring me because I was just a kid, but as it turns out, he couldn’t hear me speak.
Dad was just over six feet tall and weighed 190 pounds, all muscle. He had been a boxer from his sixteenth year (when he whipped every lumber jack of any age in tough man matches up and down the Hood River in Oregon), through his six-year Navy career. He could military press 250 pounds ten times until he was 40 years old. He never used anesthetic in the dentist’s office. He has always been the essential macho-alpha male. He is a civil engineer and a natural leader of men.
Dad’s ’54 Pontiac pulled up in front of our house and we all got excited. We hurried down the front porch steps along the cracked concrete walkway. The first thing he did after an unusually lame hug and no kiss was to begin picking litter out of the front yard.
“Jim—-you’ve got to keep this yard clean!” he said, in an angry tone that pretty much killed the mood. “Is your mother home?” he asked.
“Yes, she’s here,” Teresa said walking closely by his side as he walked quickly around the front yard picking up scraps of paper.
“What’s the matter with you, Jim? It’s your responsibility to keep this yard clean. What do you think your neighbors think of this trash in your yard?”
I had never met the neighbors and didn’t think a few scraps of paper in the yard were anything out of the ordinary around here. I was disappointed that my father was in a bad mood. He walked into the living room with us. We called my mother, still in her bathrobe. She looked like a thin Jane Russell—long black hair, blue eyes, very, very pretty.
“Hi Molly,” he said in a tone caved in with loneliness, regret, longing, and anxious eagerness. He was afraid of her. He was very deeply in love with her. She hated him to the bottom of her heart but she hated so many things that sometimes they got mixed up and she relaxed her opposition, which was why Dad was here at all.
“Hi Jim,” she offered.
“You’re beautiful, as always.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she said, backing away from his effort to give her an embrace.
“It’s good to see you.”
It had been two years since their divorce, her one-year-stay in Eastern State Mental Hospital for nervous collapse, and his brief tenure in Peru, where he was field superintendent on a mining road in the Andes. He got into a fight with his boss and headed back to the States where he ended up with the Forest Service in Yreka, California.
“I wish I could say the same. The kids are all here. Please return them by 9:00 Sunday night.”
“Would you like to join us?” he asked.
“Please, spare me.”
Regan and I piled into the Pontiac and the three of us headed over to Dad’s little apartment in Sandpoint. Teresa and Katy were staying behind—homework and boyfriends. I was glad we had a radio in the car because Dad is in a dark mood. Brenda Lee doesn’t sound very happy either. Dad likes to drive fast. He ignores my plea to slow down. Pleas of any sort go right into what I now know as his reptilian brain, and he just turns up the heat for the kill. He can’t help himself. It’s more the passing on the winding road across the Idaho border on corners where I can’t tell if there’s someone coming or not. This is our lucky night. I always wondered why Dad made his father cower and beg him to slow down. Even to a kid, he didn’t seem to be showing proper respect. Driving fast was part of being a he-man, along with being able to lift a lot of weight and punch a lout in the breadbasket at any time. As Dad was trying to teach me how to box and generally how to defend myself in a fight, my mother had already broken me of my tendency toward physical violence. I scratched and slugged one babysitter too many back in Kansas, sent one too many neighborhood boys home crying, and threw one too many dishes and pieces of silverware. She would not tolerate it anymore. She forbid me to ever hit anyone again, especially my sisters. “NO MORE HITTING!!” she screamed when I was seven.
Meanwhile, Dad tries to hone my ability to both throw and slip a punch. He didn’t know that his efforts were in vain. I would never hit again. The irony is forming from the toxic mist of Perry Flats of my mother breaking my violent will to the point where I am reluctant to protect myself, and then moving into the meanest neighborhood in town.
We are speeding into Sandpoint, Idaho, in the fall of 1959. Regan is in the backseat with her little 7-year-old subconscious churning furiously away about the dirty fact of her exclusion from the Yreka trip earlier in June. She cannot quite believe that she would be left at the Settlement. She wonders why she was not included. She watched Dad and I drive away waving to the three girls. Mother would be out of the hospital in a month, and she would retrieve my sisters from the most luxurious living quarters outside of the mansions on South Hill, and drive them to their new home down in the Perry Flats, across the tracks, near the General Mills silos.
The Hutton Settlement was founded by the wife of a very successful silver miner. It was a 75-acre estate in the suburbs of Spokane. Eighty children lived in four 3-story Georgian mansions with walnut paneling, large brick fireplaces, libraries in each house, very large all-stainless-steel kitchens with a cooking staff in each. There was a swimming pool, tennis courts, manicured baseball diamond, fields of potatoes, a full-time gardener, an administrative staff, and a “Mom” and “Pop” for each of the cottages. If a child had to get along without their parents present, this was not bad duty. The Hutton Settlement was a very, very nice place to live. The children were friendly, the supervisors were caring and intelligent, and there were many supervised and unscheduled activities. There were magnificent hills covered in fragrant grasses, wildflowers, and small animals. The hillsides were available for hiking on any day, and sledding in the winter. We were entertained by fine local musicians in musical and theatrical productions in the auditorium, and we were all carted off to church every Sunday. Although I was glad my mother was home from the hospital and I was glad to be going back into her life, it was a journey into a new darkness, a meanness. It was an education on the edges of the underworld, and, at times, in the bowels of the underworld.
This morning, Mom is shopping for dogs. She goes to death row at the city dog pound to begin her search. Throughout my childhood, all of our dogs came from death row. Mom walks in, asks the manager to show her the cages that contain the dogs due to be put to sleep today. She walks past the cages for the once over. She looks into their eyes. If they look back, if they acknowledge her presence, they make the first cut. If they wag their tail when she sees them during the second pass, they are practically in the car seat headed to a new home. She asks to pet a few candidates. It’s not unlike “Queen for a Day” in that the saddest, ugliest dog wins. On this day she takes two. My mother was an ugly duckling, a considerably ordinary-looking young girl who blossomed into a stunning black Irish beauty. She turned heads all of the time until she was well into her forties. She is 36 this year. She chooses a little furry dachshound-spaniel mutt and an Australian shepherd mutt. They were due to be gassed that afternoon. She saved their lives and they were now and forever in her debt. She named the little one “Punky” and Regan named the shepherd “Mitzi.” They were both females. Punky had been fixed, Mitzi had not. After dropping the dogs back at the house, Mom attended an auction and returned with a bubbling Wurlitzer jukebox with a 45rpm attachment and 22 silk robes, costumes from a science fiction movie that never reached distribution. The robes were deep ultramarine blue with gold braid hems and braid at the ends of long, full, drooping sleeves. She changed from her business clothing from her job as secretary for the boss of the grocery distribution facility, into one of the robes every night, and once she put on a robe, she became “served” rather than “servant,” and woe to the child who missed the transition. The dogs were trained as well, especially Punky, who became her devoted lap dog. Mitzi was the scrappier outdoors dog, and in these times, dogs ran free.
Regan, Dad, and I arrive at the little apartment in Sandpoint around l:00 in the afternoon. It is very; sparsely furnished but neat and clean. There is a drawing board in the corner of the living room where my Dad’s patent application drawings are being completed. He has invented a machine for calculating the volume of cut-and-fill in a given cross section of roadway. His bookshelves are filled with math and physics volumes from his college years at the University of Washington, where he struggled trough a few forestry courses before switching to civil engineering. He and my mother attended classes on the G.I. Bill after their service in World War II. Mom dropped out after her fourth child was born and juggling schedules to manage infants and academics became impossible. Mom stayed home with her dreams of Shakespearean scholarship and supported Dad through his dramatic struggles with differential equations, physics, chemistry, etc. For a boy from the logging camps of northern Oregon and five years at war, it was a challenging adjustment into a world of Cartesian abstraction invented by eighteenth-century French aristocrats. Mom pulled his textbooks out of the trash on more than one occasion. Mother said to us as we were gathered at her silk-slippered feet that the turning point in her marriage, the time when it occurred to her that it just was not going to last, was the night she sent Dad out for ice-cream for her fresh, homemade blueberry pie, and he returned with raspberry-flavored ice cream. For this she could not forgive him. After conferring among ourselves after hearing this for the third or fourth time, we figured the real reason was probably that he made her give up her newborn baby that she conceived with a Marine fighter pilot who was shot down and killed in the same South Pacific battles in which my father lost 60 percent of his hearing. Dad was gone for more than nine months. He was not challenged by simple arithmetic.
Dad has one picture on his walls. It is a page from Life magazine. It is a photograph of an American soldier carrying a small donkey. The title of the photo is “Beast of Burden.” Both parents love animals, other than humans, with a few exceptions. I am comparing this new, thinner, sadder version of my father with the large, strong, happy, confident leader of 200 men (his survey crews) striding with me down the streets of Sydney, Australia. He was a field surveyor/superintendent in a SEATO munitions plant. He was radiant, he was charismatic, he was happy. His gap-tooth smile was never more than a few seconds away that entire year. He was in love with life. He loved his job. He loved our farmhouse from which he commuted to his jobsite in his Utah Construction pick-up truck. The 18-year-old daughter/office assistant from the neighboring farm was deeply infatuated with him. Even I could see that. She would bring her brother over to our pond for a swim and always ask about Dad, and ask me to go get him for a swim. Even though swimmers in our pond came out with a leech from time to time, it was a popular regional gathering place. We would catch an eel or two and barbecue them in the setting sun with the sound of kookaburras and the smell of eucalyptus in the air. Dad and I visited Sydney so he could pick up a magnificent leather-bound atlas of the world that he had ordered many months earlier. This atlas was Rand McNally’s finest and latest. It was about 11” wide and 18” long with James H. Blake engraved in gold letters on the lower right hand side of the deep blue leather cover. He loved that atlas and studied it almost every night the way most people watched television. He had fought and worked in over 35 different countries. He liked to memorize the elevations of prominent mountains all over the world. He can name the elevations of at least 300 mountains. He loves geography. He loves the earth.
Dad is sad. He would have made a poor attorney. He telegraphs his emotions at all times. He is very easy to read. When he is happy, he is as radiant as an academy award winner, save the jumping up and down. When he is depressed, it is as though a large dark hand emerged from the center of the earth and grabbed his heart and is squeezing him into blackness. His black moods are exceeded only by those of “Uncle” Bud, but only because Bud’s are more unrelenting and completely immobilize him to the point where he cannot leave his bed. My father can work just as effectively when he is depressed, but all of his moods are highly transferable and he can fill a room with darkness very quickly.
Dad is sad and lonely even though he has a 25-year-old girlfriend named Heidi whom he met at the post office. She is from Switzerland and has left her very fancy sewing machine in the corner of the living room. The presence of Regan and I does little to lift Dad’s spirits. After sunset we walk into downtown Sandpoint where we enter a café and order dinner. Regan gets right to the point.
“Daddy, why didn’t I get to go with you and Jimmy last summer?”
“Well honey, I was living in a barracks that was for men only.”
“Why didn’t you get a house?”
“Well, it just wouldn’t have worked out.”
Dad buys us ice cream for dessert and takes us to see a Disney movie, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” I am still wondering what has happened to the confident, happy Dad I knew in Australia. What’s wrong? Something’s wrong. If people are supposed to be happy, then something is wrong. If people are not supposed to be happy then nothing’s wrong, it just doesn’t feel as good. Dad’s sadness seems very deep. ***
I usually save a piece of sandwich from my lunch to feed the pigeons that live up in the rusting steel girders of the General Mills railroad spur overpass. There are eight tracks crossing at this point so it is quite a dark place even on a sunny day. This zone is not far from the corner where my bundle of newspapers is dropped, so on rainy days I grab my bundle and drag it to the over/underpass and fold papers until the rain lets up. Sometimes the rain doesn’t let up and I proceed anyway in order to get the route delivered by 6:30. There are canvas flaps on the bag to cover the papers, but they usually get wet one way or another on rainy days and the complaints roll in. My three sisters are my answering service and they are getting tired of hearing my customers on the line instead of their friends, especially Katy, since for her, it would most likely be a boyfriend.
I am enjoying my paper route. I like that there are comprehensible areas where the addresses on my list correspond to homes. I especially enjoy the clarity and precision of the apartment building on my route. It has at least five subscribers and even though I have to climb to the fourth floor, the sureness of the fit between written address and the number on the door in front of my face is satisfying, and I know I’m doing the right thing and I won’t get calls from the customers in this building due to a failure on my part. As it turned out, I got many calls from these people, but it was always a screw-up in the subscription department or the route manager Dave was late including the new address slip, which was on a bright yellow paper, under the wire on my bundle.
“Where’s my paper? I thought my subscription was supposed to start tonight.”
“I’ll deliver your paper starting tomorrow night, ma’am,” I said.
“All right then, you’ll have to remember to subtract ten cents from my bill.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I replied, knowing that she was lucky she lived in an apartment or she might not ever get her paper. It was hard enough reading Ron’s terrible pencil scribbled numbers and then transferring them to a new sheet of notepaper using non-waterproof fountain pen ink. For about two weeks, before I got a new list from Dave, I had a lot of angry customers. I am handling the pressure okay. I’m not wetting the bed any more. As long as my sheets are dry, just about anything can happen to me and I still feel pretty good. I always feel a little sorry for the customers I miss, especially when I miss them a second time in one night, on the skip trip too. A lot of these people will cancel their subscriptions, but it doesn’t really matter that much because I wouldn’t have known where to go in order to collect their money.
I always enjoy delivering to the Friendly Tavern. It is one of the last deliveries each night, so by the time I get there, I’m feeling a sense of accomplishment that lasts until I get to the underpass, then the shadow of the forgotten papers begins, and it hovers during the half-hour walk back to our house on Perry Street and until the phone calls from annoyed subscribers begin to arrive. I don’t return to the missed papers until I fix myself some dinner and change my socks, especially if they’re wet. I rest up a while, perhaps watching an episode of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” while waiting for folks to notice that their “Chronicle” never arrived. I don’t want to go out two times in one night. After two or three misses at the same address, I will either begin to remember them, or they will cancel their subscription. There are new subscribers added every couple of days and there are people canceling at a rate that keeps the volume of my route in the low seventies.
The Friendly Tavern is as good as its name and during the coldest nights of winter, the bartender allows me to wait inside to thaw myself for several minutes even though, he reminds me, I am under age. I can see the sign on the door, “No Minors.” I think they mean miners and I can easily understand why they would not want the very heavy drinkers such as my grandfather Gilliland, who was a copper miner, in their establishment. I am perplexed by the spelling. Where is the “o” coming from, and why, on such a neatly lettered sign, they have misspelled a word. It remained a mystery for years. When I have the money, I order a bag or two of Planter’s salted peanuts. They take the edge off my appetite. By six or seven I am getting hungry. It is a long stretch from the peanut butter sandwich at lunch in the school cafeteria to another bowl of Bran Flakes at night. If I am ambitious, I’ll fix some soup, but opening a can and getting a pot messy usually seems like too much work, especially during the weeks that I have to do the dishes, every third week. Katy doesn’t do dishes. She works at the A&W as a carhop.
This is collection day, my first. This will be the first time I meet many of my customers. I will meet at least one-third of them tonight. Collecting typically takes three days per month. At least 50 percent of the people I meet tonight will have some reason why they cannot pay the $2.25 monthly bill. Almost all of them find the money at some point during my three-day collection period. A couple of times I remember to collect at a home where I have forgotten to deliver the paper, and I get the “So you’re the little culprit who’s supposed to deliver our paper.” This is embarrassing or humiliating, I can’t tell the difference.
Many of my subscribers invite me into their homes to wait while they search for cash or for their checkbook. I am wearing my canvas delivery bags bulging with papers if it is early in the route. I feel awkward standing in their homes looking around at their lives. If there are men in the house, they are usually not involved. I am present during dinnertime. Not everyone is preparing food, but each home has a signature smell that has a food component: stale sweat and fresh bread, decaying wood and ginger, moldy linoleum and canned peas, Florient pine-scented air freshener and cooked cabbage, cat urine and roast beef. The apartments of the old men smell like sour sweat and Dinty Moore canned stew or fresh paint and burning cheese. The people who invite me in typically come up with the money, where the ones who don’t invite me in have a 50 percent chance of postponing payment. I love the beautiful feeling of the growing roll of cash in my pocket, more money than I have ever touched at one time in my life. Sometimes it is as much as $40. I store the checks in my new wallet. It is my first wallet and I love it. On the third day of collecting, toward the end of my route, I reach the four-story rundown mansion. It is from central casting—Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, ratty shingles on a variegated mansard roof, rusting iron filigree along the parapet, turret with a shingled dome and a squeaky set of wood front porch steps. The house is set back from the street in a large yard filled with very tall pine trees, the concrete walkway is cracked and curved. The moon is almost full, the wind is blowing through the trees, causing them to sway so slightly as I look up at clouds crossing the moon. I do not like being this far from the poorly lit street. My first series of knocks are ignored. I rap on the arched stained glass for the second knock. As I am tightening my fist for a third series, the door opens and I am looking into a huge, pink, erect penis being held out to me by a towering giant who is moaning and slobbering, quite pleased with himself.
“Moaaaahhhhunhhh,” he says in a deep voice.
His eyes are rolling around, and just as I turn to get the hell out of there, a very short and skinny old lady in ratty cloth slippers and cooked-liver-colored dress looks up at this gargantuan, sorry man: “Lupo! Get away from the door! And put that thing away!” she says, pointing to his absolutely huge dick. She presses the back of his dirty corduroy pants as he turns away and she slaps his vast butt.
“Good evening ma’am, collect for the ‘Chronicle’,” I say, voice shaking.
“How much do we owe you, son?” she asks as though nothing unusual has been happening.
“Two-twenty-five, ma’am,” I reply with my now doubled heart rate. She pays cash, gives me a twenty-five cent tip and closes the door. I walk very quickly back through the whistling pines out to the dark street and head straight for home, enough collecting for one night. For the following several months I hire my African American friend, Larry White, a sixth grader who is braver than I, to collect from this home. These folks were my scariest customers, as much for the remoteness of the house from the street as from Lupo’s behavior.
There is a teenaged married couple from Alabama. Jerry is 19, an airman at Fairchild Air Force Base. I only collected from him one time until he was transferred to a base closer to his home, but Sara, his 16-year-old wife, remained for a while. When Jerry opened the door to their apartment, after a very long wait, he was buckling a skinny patent leather belt and zipping up his trousers. I could see across the bare hardwood floor to their sofa. It was turquoise vinyl with tapered, spindly, wooden legs with brass tips. Sara, a beautiful blonde woman-child with long curly hair and translucent skin, is sitting up on her elbows holding a flimsy, yellow cotton dress over her otherwise naked body. I have interrupted something very private.
“Collect for the ‘Chronicle.’”
“How much we owe ya?”
“Two twenty-five,” I said apologetically, glancing back at the beautiful young woman who is now sitting up and staring at me.
“Lessee ‘f I can scrounge that up. Come on in while I take a look see.”
Jerry padded around on the bare floor, slipping in his stocking feet between piles of clothing in the corners of the room. Sara looked concerned.
“Honey, I cain’t seem to find any money. Can you hep this young man out? This a ma waaf Sara,” he drawled.
She looked down holding the dress to her breasts, leaving the edge of her beautiful, long, pale back exposed to the harsh light from the lamp on the floor.
“No Jerry, I can’t. You now damn well I spent the last of my money on gas. Why’d you let the boy in here like this?”
“He ain’t gonna bite you. He’s jest a kid.” Jerry turned toward me and asked in a submissive voice, “Can you hold on for a minute?”
Jerry walked across the floor and sat on the edge of the sofa, and, leaning over Sara’s bare legs, began to dig behind the cushions for lost change. He began pulling out old chewed up pencils and pens, hair clips, rubber bands and bobby pins, a food encrusted fork and a yo-yo. He finally found a quarter and a few grimy pennies.
“Dammit Jerry, just ask the boy to come back later,” Sara commanded.***
Jerry reached into his pocket for some matches and lowered himself to his hands and knees to search beneath the sofa. He crawled under and wriggled as the top of his back scraped the underside. He struck his match. The dust balls, the scrim stapled to the bottom of the sofa and all of the sofa stuffing exploded at once in a quiet whuump! Flames shot out in a puff of smoke as Jerry scrambled back out from under and stood up brushing the front of his shirt. Sara leapt off of the sofa, dropping her dress, as flames shot up all around the edges. There was a lot of smoke.
“Keeerist!” said Jerry, as he flipped the sofa upside down. The flames shot up several feet. He ran to the kitchen slipping and sliding to the floor to get water, as Sara jumped around naked before joining Jerry in the kitchen to fill pots. I took my bags off over my shoulders, spilling undelivered papers on the floor, and slapped at the fire with my canvas bags. The most volatile sofa stuffing burned out quickly and the flames died down. Sara and Jerry each emptied a pan of water on the fire and it retreated to a steaming, wet mess. Sara walked slowly to the bathroom, and I stared at her beautiful butt as Jerry searched around for embers. Sara was the first naked woman I ever saw. ***
I wake up for school at 7:00 and without combing my hair, put on my jeans, socks, combat boots, flannel shirt. I brush my teeth before breakfast and have a bowl of Bran Flakes. I wonder from time to time why my mother didn’t get some different types of cereal like some Raisin Bran or Corn Flakes. Why would it have been so difficult to add a little variety to the menu? She said the Bran Flakes were on sale, which immediately begged the question why she didn’t buy 100 or so boxes of bran instead of 250, and spend the remaining money on, say, Sugar Pops. It just didn’t make sense. She never bought cereal again at South 102 Perry, and we ate Bran Flakes all year.
I was out of the house by 7:30 and on my way to Higley’s Quality Inn, the motel a few blocks away that was owned and operated by my friend Ray Higley’s mother and father. Ray’s Dad Herb looked exactly like Dobie Gillis’s Dad from the television program, my favorite after Jon Gnagy, and he had the same name. It was an unusual coincidence. I was friends with Ray because he would let me pretend to intimidate him. He knew I was harmless, but he let me boss him around a little and I always came out on top in our wrestling matches. I never slugged him, but we had some fun tussling around. He had plastic sculptures of Roy Rogers and Trigger, the Cisco Kid and his horse Cocoa, as well as The Lone Ranger and his horse Silver. All of the horses were raised on their hind legs and all three cowboys were holding their hats in the air. There were a few superbly assembled Revell model planes on his dresser with no glue showing. I always wondered how people put those models together without showing glue. Higley’s mother always fixed him a hot breakfast cereal, Maypo, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, corn meal, or steel cut oats. He always had his choice of brown or white sugar, and he had a choice of hot Postum or cold milk. His mother catered to every breakfast need while watching the Today show with that oleaginous guitar theme music and Hugh Downs on a small television sitting on top of an incredibly well-stocked refrigerator. I was amazed by all the colors inside from all the fresh vegetables, cartons of milk, chocolate milk, ketchup, mayonnaise, Tupperware lids and rows of fresh eggs and butter in the door. Jesus! I wait patiently for Higley to finish up his little prince routine and we head out to pick up Larry-the-Crutch as Higley’s Mom kisses him goodbye and pats him on the back. I think she even ironed his shirts but I’m not sure. I don’t remember why we picked up Larry for our mile trek to McKinley grade school. I think his brother was a friend for a while, then he just disappeared. Larry had some physical issues related to a lingering disease that slurred his speech and prohibited him from walking without crutches. There was a very strange thing about Larry. Higley and I spoke about it once or twice, but never came to a conclusion. Every time we picked up Larry and got outside his house, he would stop and lean on his crutch and look up into the sky with his head cocked, and with a beatific grin his left leg would begin to twitch, he would pitch a tent in his soft corduroy pants, and a wet stain would appear. I guess he was always glad to see us. Nobody at school paid him any attention unless it was to make fun of his speech or his drooling or his dirty clothes.
Mr. Irons, our fifth-grade teacher, was a clean-cut graduate of Whitman College. He had a firm manner and he played favorites. I got off on the wrong foot with him when he asked me why I didn’t comb my hair, and I told him it was none of his business. On another occasion, he got me mixed up with another Jim in his class who sat two desks away and was chewing gum. He pointed to me (not chewing gum) and called me the other Jim’s last name and told me, in rather harsh terms, to spit out my gum. I quickly shot back my name and stated that I was not chewing gum. I guess he liked the authority in my voice. He never gave me any trouble after that, and dated my mother later in the year, to my chagrin.
Skip Calvin’s younger brother is in my class and he is every bit as malevolent as his sixth-grade brother. Biff Calvin stays indoors the first day of class during recess and I see him pulling pieces of bubblegum out of his mouth and sticking it on the backs of boys’ jackets in the cloak room. He had mean, squinty eyes. I never had any trouble from him, but his brother, Skip, was a constant threat to my well being and peace of mind all year. During the first week of school I break my milk bottle in the lunchroom playing bottle chicken with Joe Clark. We try to see who moves his milk bottle out of the way on the lunch table first, thus avoiding shattered glass. The very first chicken run we break both bottles and glass shards fly all around, landing on the table, getting into boys’ and girls’ sandwiches and on their Twinkies and cupcakes. We are quickly escorted to the principal’s office where the big man himself, Mr. Gordon, a former college football player, linebacker, and U.S. Army sergeant major during the big one, World War II, decides that Joe and I need to be taught a lesson. He asks us to touch our toes and proceeds to deliver the most powerfully intense pain I have ever experienced in my life before or since. He struck us both once with a cricket bat square across the butt. The area of coverage was 20 or 30 square inches after looking at the red mark on my ass that night. It was cruel but not unusual punishment.
I made a couple of friends at recess the first week of school, both times by playing word games with their names. Higley and I became friends after he told me his name was Higley and I answered: “Quimby?”
“No,” he said, “Higley.”
“Oh,” I said, “Digby, nice to meet you.”
I said to a few of the guys standing around, “This is Ray Higney.”
“Nice to meet you, Higney,” said Tom Johnson, and the game was on.
Quimby, Digley, Nigley, Crumley, Bigsby, and on and on. Ten kids were onto the game and Higley had a lot of new friends. He and I were best friends all year. Later that week I met a Black sixth grader named Larry White. I remarked that it was curious to me that he was not called Larry Black, and he chased me around the schoolyard for ten minutes, slugged me a couple of times on the arms, and we were friends for the rest of the year, even though he engaged in some reprehensible behavior that disturbed me a lot. Larry was the boy I hired to collect from the Lupo household.
My after-school activity is my paper route. Some days I mess around with the guys before going home to pick up my bags. I usually buy a piece of fruit from the farmers market on the way to my corner to wait for my bundle to be dropped off. Some afternoons it’s already there. Seventy-five or so papers wrapped very tightly with a single twisted wire that I cut with a pair of wire cutters that burst open the bundle with a dull, warm thump. I always like that sound. It’s like the starting bell at a horserace. It signals the beginning of my route for the day. The cutting of the wire also increases the volume of the load. I place the empty canvas bags over my shoulders at some point between home and my corner and savor the lightness for a while before filling the bags with fresh papers, reeking of the smell of ink and newsprint. It is a soft and high-quality smell. Fresh papers smell important. They smell urgent. It is time to get my butt in gear and pay attention. It is the smell of responsibility. A full set of bags (they are called bags rather than the singular bag because there is a pouch in front and one over my back, two pouches, therefore, bags) is quite heavy five days a week, but impossibly heavy on Wednesdays.
I always enjoyed the hour or so I spent during the autumn and spring resting at home after school before heading out to the route. I was usually home by myself. It was a good time to get out my Jon Gnagy kit and try my hand at a new lesson. I had the Great Dane down cold but was getting hung up on mailbox snow shadow and cornstalk stubble. I could draw a passable riverboat but the people standing at the dock were stiff and I could not get their clothing to drape properly. In frustration I would put away the lesson book and draw jet fighters or dinosaurs. I loved the F-100 and F-102 fighters and enjoyed the truncated vertical stabilizer on the F-106 that distinguished it from the 102. The F-104 was beyond interesting. It looked like a spaceship, and I was disappointed to learn later that it had the flight characteristics of a spinning brick if it lost power. During winter I had to go straight from school down to my route due to the short days. I always finished long after dark during the winter and doubly late with the skip trip. A skip trip on a slushy or snowy winter night after a Wednesday was difficult. It was on one of these nights that my mother remarked that she felt sorry for me and offered to drive me back to my route to find the family whose paper I missed. I was sitting in the living room at 9:30 putting my wet boots back on. I didn’t think it was fair for her to have to get out of her sci-fi robe after a hard day at the office, or maybe it was that I didn’t want to be embarrassed driving around trying to find a house that would likely remain lost to me. I think it was the latter reason.
I wandered around the outer reaches of my route, up and down dark streets, with my feet freezing and my face freezing and my hands freezing, and my nose dripping, walking through slush in the pitch dark in some cases. I remember this particular night and I remember never finding the house or maybe it was two or three houses I had forgotten. I felt truly doomed by my inability to find these people waiting for their papers. I felt deeply worried and sorry for them, and very stupid. No matter how bad I felt or how incessant the failure to deliver every paper, I never concocted a system to prevent this failure. This failure that ate into my soul like dropping acid. Every skip was a drop. Skip/drip. Skip drip. A map wouldn’t work, the scale was too small and many of the streets on my route were not even on the city map. Some of my customers weren’t even on streets. They were just out there.
It was that damned list that kept changing. It was always something different. It was always a different reason. The failure persisted. On a paper route 100 percent delivery must be the norm. Every week were adds, new addresses to fail to locate, until the call from the irate subscriber who would give challenging directions. It was sysyphusian in its impenetrability. I wonder what sort of character building this sort of relentless failure breeds. Organizational skills! God gave me an impossible job during fifth grade so that every task, for the rest of my life, would be manageable. I learned how to seize shreds of reality to inform my search for these people in order to deliver the news. Most of them probably didn’t deserve my concern. Was it my job to give them street numbers for their houses? Was their dyslexia my problem? Were their unlit streets my fault? At the time I thought it was all my fault for being unable to deliver 100 percent of my papers every day.
It wasn’t my fault at all. It would take a team of smart adults to deliver that route in daylight, and they would have to be patient and forgiving and dutiful and concerned and caring and attentive. Give an intelligent adult a scribbled address for a house with no street numbers, and send them out after dark to deliver a paper. Forget it--not possible without a cell phone. God gave me that route for a reason. Every job since has been cake of one flavor or another, most with frosting. ***
Bud lived in our basement all year. He moved in as Indian summer was fading and the good apples were arriving at the farmer’s market across the street. Today is his move-in day and Molly, my mother, is cooking a big Sunday dinner in his honor. I have drawn him a picture of a triceratops, which I think he will like, and Teresa and Regan will later perform a number from “South Pacific”—“Happy Talk”—after dinner. They have been rehearsing all week. Teresa is a talented singer and a ballet student, but it was a great effort on Regan’s part to learn the lyrics and the dance steps. Katy thinks it’s a little strange that Bud doesn’t have a place of his own, but welcomes him nonetheless.
Mother met Bud at the Menninger Clinic Mental Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, in 1954 when she was sent there for a two-year treatment program following her third suicide attempt. The slashed wrists and the drive into the Columbia River were treatable with the new cure-all wonder drug, amphetamines, and she was prescribed mega doses for her mega depression. She responded to this treatment by jumping off a bridge. At this point she was removed from our home in Richland, Washington, where my father had a very important job leading another of his 200-man survey crews at the Hanford Atomic Works. He was doing his part to win the Cold War after five years of fighting the hot one. Mom kissed us all—Katy was 9, Teresa was 7, I was 5, and Regan was 4—and left for the bus station to the sounds of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Mom always had trouble at Christmas time.
Bud became her friend at the clinic almost immediately, due to their shared twisted sense of humor and great intelligence. Mom always tested in the genius range on her hospital-administered I.Q. tests. She also appreciated that Bud never hit on her in a romantic way, due to his shyness over having his penis and testicles blown off by anti-aircraft fire while flying as a ball-turret belly-gunner in a B-24 over the oil fields of Yugoslavia.
Bud spent his entire childhood on a very severe farm for orphans, and so they shared a history of neglect and abuse as children, which they camouflaged mightily with their music, art, poetry, journalism, sculpture, academic studies, and mordant, caustic humor.
During these years, the early 1950s, homosexuality; was considered a very severe abnormality. Many of Molly’s and Bud’s friends were gay men and lesbian women veterans.
Many of my mother’s women friends from her years at the V.A. Hospital would reappear in her life throughout the years, spending the night at our house.
Bud taught himself to play excellent boogie-woogie piano in the Albert Ammons-Meade Lux Lewis style while a mental patient, and he built a marvelous collection of very abstract driftwood furniture. He did a series of drip paintings that were indistinguishable from the finest Pollocks, and he taught himself chess and studied mathematics and physical anthropology. Bud was a radiant dynamo for six months each year. But was severely depressed to the point of immobility for six months each year.
Bud could not hold a job during the months he was depressed. He could only sit up, swing his short stocky hairy legs over his bed (Bud was 5’4” tall) wrap his ratty terrycloth bathrobe over his shoulders and sit. He would get up to walk over to his hotplate to boil water for his coffee in a fit of ambition that would strike around 10 a.m., then return to his bed where he would remain until bed time, when he would swing his legs up onto the bed and sleep until late the following morning. This routine continued from November until April, with a merry interlude during the Christmas season. Christmas was my mother’s worst time of the year by far, and lucky for us, it was Bud’s best. It cured him of his depression for a few weeks during his depression cycle. Because Bud could not get out of bed for such a long time every year, he needed a place to stay, and he stayed with us a lot, and always in our basements.
The first thing Bud moves in is his old upright piano. He loves the boogie-woogie and during his up season, he will always comply with a request for his original composition, “Uncle Bud’s Black and Blue Boogie.” This music makes me happy. He is always happy to play it. During his work season, Bud is a heavy construction carpenter working on bridges, office buildings, warehouses, and industrial plants. It is physically demanding, and the month of May is always difficult, as he is losing winter fat and gaining strength and endurance lifting heavy timbers, scaffolding, sheets of plywood, wood beams, posts and trusses, and spending hours measuring, sawing, and nailing with the largest nails—20 penny up to railroad spikes driven in with a sledge hammer. He works in the rain and on many jobs he works six- or seven- hour days per week, to meet ambitious construction schedules during the summer. Bud Meifert is a German with a German passion for precision and hard work, during his work season.
Bud has two cats, Bronko and Party Girl. They often sit in “Eddie’s Poor Pot,” a large ceramic bedpan/pot on which Bud has written in black magic market, “Fuck the Bank of America.” Eddie’s poor pot is lined with a rubber liner, as though for its original intention, but it is only ever used as a home for either of the cats. They like to tuck down inside of it and peek their heads out over the lip. Bud has constructed an elaborate scratching post with two platforms for the cats, and places this in the corner of the room he has partitioned over by the washer and dryer. Bud’s room is 8’ by 10’ and he builds two rows of bookshelves over his bed and desk on the afternoon of his arrival. Bud covers his walls from baseboard (finger-jointed pine) to crown molding, more pine with burlap applied with wallpaper paste. This is new burlap, not old potato or onion sacks. The burlap gives the room a rich warmth and the smell is clean and weedy. Eddie, Bud’s stuffed koala bear, who has been displaced from his pot by Bronko and Party Girl, sits on the upper bookshelf near the high window and reflects a tawny gray from his genuine rabbit fur. Eddie is a gift from my mother, who sent it to Bud, still a patient at the V.A. in Topeka. Mom also sent Bud two exquisite ceramic plates made by Australian aborigine artists. Bud mounted the plates just beyond the end of the bookshelves over his desk. They reminded me of our incredible year living on a dairy farm (as tenants), 40 miles south of Sydney, near a village called Plumpton. I only remembered the good parts, not the incessant fighting, yelling, screaming, struggling of Molly and Jim, two kids from the woods of northern Oregon gone international.
Dad never understood much about the relationship between Bud and Molly, his ex-wife. He didn’t know Bud’s secrets, that there was no sexuality in their relationship. He was perplexed that they were such good friends but never married. He wondered why Bud lived in the basement and not upstairs. He was moderately jealous of Bud from time to time, but always treated him with respect and congeniality. He said to me that as long as Bud treats you kids well, he’s all right with me. Bud always treated us well, especially at Christmas time. If it were not for Bud, Christmas would be a long, sad parade of mother’s black moods,and they were black, not dark gray, not deep indigo—pitch black. Bud is Christmas counterpoint.
Bud has four boxes of books; not one of them is a novel. There are a couple of calculus texts, a mathematical analysis volume, a few books on geometry and several thin books of math puzzles. There are many chess books, George Koltanowski, chess openings, chess middle game, chess end game, chess strategies, great games of great players, and a couple of biographies of modern chess masters. There are many anthropology texts, a Levi-Strauss volume and Margaret Mead’s volume, Coming of Age in Samoa. Bud had a thesaurus and a couple of large dictionaries. He worshipped Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, and possessed Mr. Hoffer’s small but potent tracts. Bud loved Eric Hoffer because he, too, was a working man. Hoffer placed great value on the relationship between hard physical labor and clear thought. It was either Bud or Eric Hoffer who remarked that all working adults should spend half of their day laboring to the point of sweating profusely before earning the right to sit in an office. Bud has one box filled with Scientific American magazines. He loves to work the brain buster puzzles and games. Bud hauls down his record player, a hi-fi set that has three speeds and a diamond needle. He had red vinyl Lenny Bruce records, Mort Sahl records, Nichols and May as well as Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman. Bud loves humor and is always perfecting his chops and routines, his one-liners and physical stunts and gestures with which he will launch us all into hysterics during this year and many more years to come.
When Bud was hot, he was the funniest man in the world. Imagine Jonathan Winters with an expressed dark edge mixed with Robin Williams and Lenny Bruce. This was Bud on a good night. Good nights were always grocery-shopping time. Bud would leave us in the aisle doubled up in laughter as he proceeded with his shopping. Something about shopping for food in an abundantly stocked, very intensely lit, wide-aisled supermarket put Bud in great spirits. It was the apotheosis of success to have the money to buy groceries, and the groceries to buy.
Bud is short, stocky, and tough, and very intelligent although not always smart. He doesn’t have a trace of meanness. He often gets irritated but seldom gets angry. He is a welcome addition to the family although he never sits around upstairs. Unless Mom has a project for him, he pretty much keeps to himself in the basement, even during his work season.
Bud has very bad teeth and he never ever smiles the sort of smile that would reveal his gum line, because all of his front teeth are rotted away. The food he eats is always food that could as easily be drunk as chewed. His favorite meal is oyster stew. The oysters are soft enough to gum. Bud’s recipe for oyster stew is as follows: One-half pound of raw oysters, one pint of cream, two cubes of butter, salt and pepper. His favorite and only meal during the down time is a coffee concoction that is composed as follows: One-half brewed Folger’s coffee, one-fourth cream, and one-fourth refined white sugar. Bud would prepare a large stein of this drink every morning for six months and nurse it all day until he would fix another. Bud smokes two packs of unfiltered Chesterfield cigarettes a day.
During the wintertime, well after Christmas, when I had occasion to visit Bud in his basement cave, his room took on the smell of both stale and fresh smoke, a very faint hint of cat poop/pee, the burlap, and Bud’s body odor and urine smell. It was a strong masculine smell and the smell of deep, shameful defeat, of tortuous loss and brooding, of sadness. It was the smell of a large dark gray battleship moving backward far into and under deep terror-filled water. It was the smell of a heavy lead net covering every inch of a man so heavy he cannot rise, so heavy he cannot smile, so heavy he is sad from skin to soul and deeper still, the shame and darkness and stillness. Bud cannot look me in the eye. Mother has sent me down to collect the rent. He looks up at me and says, “I don’t have it,” and then he looks down and I leave.
Bud spent his childhood from age 5 until he joined the Army Air Corps at 17, on a farm near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that was worked by orphan boys. Where my father was beaten up practically every day as a young boy in the logging camps, Bud was sexually assaulted by the older boys until he was big enough to fight them off. His tormentors grew up to be fat clerks in seedy skid-row motels, enforcers for small-time thugs running numbers and loan-sharking in Moline and Terre Haute, and as stockyard attendants and slaughterhouse janitors. This farm did not deliver honorable, intelligent, well-scrubbed fodder for the engine that is America. It provided the greasy offal used to lubricate the underbelly, the undercarriage, the hidden places where faceless people perform mindless labor so that Beaver Cleaver gets his cookies and milk on time.
World War II was empowering for Bud. His esteem was swept up in the general optimism of victory. His sacrifice at least entitled him to a shot at decency.
When we were living in Topeka after spending a year in the St. Vincent’s Home for Children, Bud taught me how to hold a hammer, and at age 6 I built a small table in the basement of his apartment building as he played boogie on his piano, stopping from time to time to show me how to hold the hammer, or how to saw wood. Bud was a patient and good-humored teacher always, with that Chesterfield dangling from the corner of his mouth. Bud showed me how much fun it was to paint as he dripped Duco enamel over his huge canvases. First-rate art and music right by my side at age 6, first grade. At night Bud would drive my sisters and I out to the Dairy Queen and then to the cemetery, where we would eat our ice-cream cones and speculate about the origins of ghosts, Casper in particular, the friendly ghost.
I am a little bit worried that there may be a ghost in the basement now, and I wonder if I should tell Bud. I spent three nights in this basement when we first moved in, while my bedroom was being painted, and I was terrified each night. My bed was not far from the furnace, and I could not get to sleep, and the longer I lay in the darkness, the more frightened I got. I couldn’t admit to my sisters that I was afraid of the dark, and by the time the terrors began everyone had gone to bed. I was frozen for many minutes and then I got on my knees facing my pillow just overwhelmed with terror. I was silently screaming so long and so hard that I tore the corners of my mouth. Something was down there with me and it was not friendly. I hoped that Bud could deal with it better than I did. My mother asked me what happened to my mouth, and I told her it was chapped lips, even though it was late summer.
Mom took all four of us to all the great science fiction and horror films of the early-mid-fifties, before and during breaks in her instutionalizations. “GOG” was the most deeply disturbing of them all, and this includes “The Mummy,” “Frankenstein,” and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” The most intensely frightening scene from all of these films was something that did not even appear on screen. When I saw those 7-foot-wide aluminum stair treads being crushed in sequence as the invisible monster walked up the steps, my heart shriveled and I tightened in fear and awe. When I saw it again with my buddy Bobby Saylor down at the Bijou on the edge of Spokane’s skid row, it was merely amusing, and I wondered how I could have been so deeply disturbed. The Bijou movie theater was known to us as “popcorn and piss” because the interior of the theater smelled like stale popcorn and urine. The toilet smelled like Pine-Sol or Fels Naptha, but that was in the basement. I had a strange attraction to the “Popcorn ‘n’ Piss” I think because of its low prices, about half the cost of the first-run houses, which put the price of a double feature here at ten or fifteen cents. I got a chance to see all the movies that frightened me as a young child again, in a more mature state of mind, thus erasing some of their lingering terrors. We saw “Them” about giant ants, “Tarantula”—giant spider, “The Incredible Shrinking man,” man shrinks-gets- chased-by-cat. “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and a few teenage rebel films that starred girls with tight sweaters like Katy’s, and guys that looked like her boyfriends. Going to horror flicks down at the Bijou gave me a feeling of independence, and Bobby usually had some new and dangerous weapon to share. He would bring gravity knives, switchblades, blackjacks, and brass knuckles he borrowed from his older brother. Saylor’s parents were dead, and he and his older brother lived by themselves down near the tracks, not far from the outer edges of my paper route. Some afternoons Saylor would help deliver papers, and I would finish early, and he would show me how to hop trains or how to smoke a cigarette or how to light a railroad flare.
One afternoon I was walking back to my house along a stretch of train track, and I found an entire flare, unused, with the cap still on. I removed the cap and struck the flare and proceeded down the tracks, balancing on the shiny rail or stepping rhythmically through the creosote saturated crossties. The flare burned down to about two inches and I was sad to see it disappearing when a large drop of molten chemical dropped onto my thumb. It quickly burned a deep gash in my flesh and I hurried home to treat myself and wrap the wound in gauze and tape. I never told anyone about it, and no one noticed. It hurt immensely for a couple of hours, but not as much as the paddling from the broken milk bottle incident. “The Atomic Kid” starring Mickey Rooney was also a very disturbing movie, because the desolation of the final scene looked just like the area around our home in Richland, down near the Columbia River. I was afraid of getting blasted by a nuclear bomb.
Bobby Saylor’s bedroom had no plastic cowboys or model boats or balsa wood airplanes—anything that an older, caring relative may have purchased or helped assemble. There was a bare bulb dangling from a frayed cord in the middle of the ceiling, and a broken “Fanner-Fifty” cap gun on the cracked desktop. He slept in a sleeping bag on an army cot.
He had one model airplane. It was a B-29 suspended by a thread from the ceiling that always spun slowly even when no one had touched it. We had to go back to Saylor’s house for some money early one evening. His light bulb was burned out, the B-29 spun slowly with moonlight shining through the decayed double-hung window that had no blinds or curtains. Saylor mentioned that his deceased father was a pilot of a B-29 and his brother bought him this model so he would know a little about his Dad. I felt a ghost in Saylor’s room but I never told him. I never told anyone about ghosts.
Bobby Saylor was the happiest boy I knew, the most independent, easily, and the most like Huckleberry Finn in his cheerful independence. As close as he was to trouble all of the time with his smoking, train-hopping, weapons-carrying, and general isolation from any organized boy activities such as school sports or scouts, he never got into trouble. I attributed this to his radiant good nature. Saylor was a very happy kid for some reason. Later in the year Saylor and I planned to build a raft and float it down the Spokane River below Nine-Mile Falls. We made elaborate plans before finding out if the river was navigable. My mother read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to us while we lived in a big ranch house near Angel’s Camp, California, the summer we returned from Australia. It was wonderful to sit with her around a crackling, popping fire, and listen to those great yarns. Tom and Huck inspired me for years, even after I saw “King Creole” and got the Elvis bug.
This morning Saylor and I are going to build a rocket. We walk over to AAA Sheet Metal down on Trent Street, not realizing that we had already made our first mistake. A rocket to be powered by hard-packed black powder—gunpowder—should not be made of sheet metal, especially not 26-gauge sheet metal, even if it is galvanized and painted lawn green with two coats of thinned Pactra enamel. Bombs and exploding shells contain black powder, not rockets.
Old Mr. Willis was kind enough to show us around his dim and dusty shop, loaded to the rafters with discarded sections of round tin duct and square duct, vent pipe jack flashing, gutters, ventilators with wind vanes, edge flashing, stove pipes, parapet coping, and all sorts of odd-shaped scraps, all of it covered with dust, and much of it piled so that brushing against it sent it tumbling or shifting noisily into a new configuration, which it did when I brushed against a tenuous pile.
We walked carefully back to the rear of the shop where Mr. Willis began to fabricate the four-inch-diameter four-foot-long tin cylinder that was the body of our rocket. He asked if we thought our rocket needed stabilizing fins, and I figured that if he asked about fins, then we had better have two or three. He soldered two fins down near the exhaust end of the beast, and Saylor and I proudly carried the four-foot-long tin can back to my house, switching off who got to carry it, because it was so cool looking that anyone who saw us would be envious.
We painted it that afternoon in my bedroom with the window closed. The paint fumes were so strong and so volatile that if someone came in smoking a cigarette, we would have had an early launch.
Saylor’s brother suggested we try to get some gunpowder at a gun and ammo shop, but it was too expensive and they wouldn’t sell it to us even if we could pay for it. They thought we were going to make firecrackers. We shelved the rocket project for a while and proceeded directly to the manned helicopter project. We found a discarded cardboard refrigerator container that was reinforced with thin strips of wood. It remained a box even when lying on its long side. We cut a few holes in it for windows and found a couple of pillows for seats. The rotors were a very big challenge, so we decided just to leave them off. We made plans for a maiden flight that consisted of pushing the box over the side of a 40-foot-high rock down in Liberty Park a few blocks from my house. As we were debating who would ride the helicopter first over the cliff, we came to our senses and agreed that if, for some reason, this “helicopter” failed to fly, the young pilot would be severely injured. If only we could have gotten past the rotor problem we would have been airborne. A few of the guys within a two-mile radius had sensible fathers who engaged in manageable projects like assembling flying gas-powered model airplanes or kites or even motorized Karts. Saylor and I let our imaginations expand to glorious proportions, but we never got far with our endeavors. We did end up getting some black powder for the rocket. We packed the tube full of toilet paper and poured the powder in the butt end and melted wax over it, with a fuse sticking out like a candle. We took it to an open space in the train yard and leaned it up against two sticks in the ground. The fuse was a string of firecracker fuses twisted together. We lit the sucker and took off running. The bottom blew apart before we got away and bent the hell out of the lower 10 inches of the tube. We were lucky we didn’t get our heads blown off.
The projects I worked on with Bobby Saylor were totems built to honor the technological wonders of the time. The Vanguard program was trying to launch satellites into space. Sputnik had alarmed and excited our society to the core, and there were helicopters on television every night. Saylor and I had our own little Cargo Cult. Our structures were as far away from functioning as if they had been drawn in crayon. It was our way to be part of the excitement of the age of flight. ***
The year we lived in Perry Flats, my mother was never out from under the influence of at least four drugs—amphetamines (very large prescribed doses), nicotine (a pack a day of filtered Winstons), caffeine (several cups a day), and alcohol (a six-pack per night minimum). She took sedatives intermittently, but only after her breakdowns, which came at six-week intervals. She is 5’6” tall. She has medium length jet black hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones. She is as thin as Audrey Hepburn and getting thinner. Most men find her irresistible, not just because of her looks and very high intelligence, but for her dirty mouth, feisty temper, and general radiant aggressiveness when drinking. She drinks every night. Her initial bout of drinking is over at the Aces and Eights Tavern, and her second stage is at home between 9:00 and 11:00 when she dons a blue silk sci-fi robe and holds forth in her swiveling, adjustable back, plaid-upholstered oversize easy chair. Once she situates herself, she calls for a beer and a dog, and the closest child is obligated to respond to the beer bequest and the dog had better come running. It is her contention and I always found it within reason, that she works hard all day for a bunch of overpaid men, and when she comes home, she expects to be waited on. The four of us do the housework. The yard work is mine. Katy prepares the macaroni and cheese or the tuna casserole when she feels like it, and there had better be some left when mother gets home. If Katy has not prepared a meal, which is two nights out of three, mother calls for her eggs.
“Fix me some eggs!” Four or five times a week she calls out, “Fix me some eggs!” and whoever is nearest the kitchen fixes her some eggs.
I wonder if her plaintive cry for eggs has anything to do with her hysterectomy.
Mother expects an audience every night. She never watches television and she wants us at her feet to listen to her vent about her job, the Catholic Church, recount her diabolically miserable childhood, and then usually, for at least a half-hour, rail against my father. She typically has Punky on her lap because Punky is just such a little ass-kiss dog. Mitzi has some independence and dignity, and would rather be in the audience being petted by one of us. Mom chain smokes during her 2-hour-long sessions and sends us for matches or another beer at regular intervals. Tonight she begins with office talk.
“Kids, you’re going to meet my boss Lou Forbes tomorrow night. He’s taking me to a basketball game. He’s not really my type but he’s nice in a smarmy sort of way. Don’t worry, he’s just a friend. I could never fall for him. His mouth looks like an asshole and he’s too old for me, Christ, he’s fifteen years older than me. He’s got a half a head of gray hair for God’s sake. Jimmy, get me a beer! It just isn’t fair, all day long I’m doing this man’s job while he’s taking two hour lunches—there isn’t anything that man does that I can’t do, that I don’t do, he gets paid twice as much as I get, and I’m always saving his ass. Gigi honey, (Regan’s nickname is Gigi with two hard Gs), fix me some eggs. When I was seven, living in the logging camp in Kinzua, my friend Cloritha McGill’s father had a locked, glass-fronted cabinet in the living room where a television would sit in a modern home. That cabinet was filled with a variety of chocolate candy bars,just boxes and piles of candy bars, mostly Hersheys. Every evening after dinner he would ask one of his six unwashed children to fetch him the key to the cabinet. He would walk over and select a chocolate bar for himself and sit back down in his chair and eat it in front of them all. The kids never got a candy bar. T.C. (my sister Teresa’s nickname is T.C.) honey, get me a beer. Do you kids know that your father was never on time for anything in 15 years of marriage? He was always late and many, many times he would show up drunk.
“One night when we were both students at the University of Washington, I baked a blueberry pie and sent him out for ice-cream, he returned with strawberry ice-cream, and I knew right then that the marriage was not going to work. God! What man in his right mind would be dumb enough to get anything but vanilla for a berry pie? He just didn’t understand anything if it didn’t have a number attached to it, if you couldn’t calculate it with a slide rule or beat it into submission, that man didn’t understand it.
“He has small poetry. I had to write all of his English papers for the first two years. God, that man couldn’t write a simple sentence to save his life. I was changing diapers for four kids actually Katy had just stopped wearing diapers and taking a full load of English classes. Your Dad and I would trade off child-care duties. I had all of my classes in the morning and his were in the afternoon. We would cross paths in the middle of campus and he would hand me the key. I dropped out after three years. I just couldn’t take it any more.
“Do you know, Gigi, get me a beer! How many times I retrieved that man’s math books out of the trash. If it weren’t for me he’d have never finished his damned civil engineering studies. I sacrificed for that man, why?? I’m going to bed.”
Once Mom went to bed, it was vital that we remain quiet, and it was not possible to remain alive and be quiet enough for her. While on tiptoe to the bathroom which is beside her bedroom, I turn the handle which has a tiny squeak. Mom erupts in a horrific extended scream. I woke her from a nightmare. She has nightmares practically every night and she is a very light sleeper. Mom was intensely concerned about locking all of the doors before going to bed. Locking the doors is my job. While we lived in the big ranch house near Angel’s Camp, a prowler broke in and launched her into a terror. No physical violence, but a big scare. We moved out the next day, and locked doors became a priority.
The next morning on my way to school it’s raining. Mom’s ’51 Studebaker is in the shop. She is waiting down at the bus stop in open-toe high heels and a thin black rain coat. It is still a little dark outside and she is shivering.
“Hi, mother!” I say as I walk past.
“Hi, Jimmy,” she replies in a weak, sad voice.
Her face is wet from the rain. It is a gloomy day at school. We’re building a model of an oil derrick and a cross-section of oil-bearing rock, an anticline. Mr. Irons likes all of the colors we have used to differentiate the various layers of the Earth’s crust. The oil derrick is made of very small, square pieces of pine assembled with gobs of Elmer’s glue. I feel like I’m in an episode of “Naked City.” It is a gloomy day at school. There is a dark cloud over everything. It’s probably the rain—no recess outdoors. Today we learn to square dance in the gymnasium to the song “Pack Up Your Troubles in an Old Kit Bag” . . . and slide, slide, slide. This lightens up the mood because it is such a happy song and I get to hold hands with Rita Ripley, a very pretty sixth grader who has a knowing look in her eyes and a very friendly, subtle smile, as if she actually knows who I am and may even like me. It has been rumored that she has been kissed by Jack LaSalle, another sixth grader, and this is not hard to believe. He looks more like Ricky Nelson than anyone in the school. I haven’t combed my hair a single day yet this year because I don’t want to attract attention from the girls, but after holding hands with Rita I may change my mind. It’s amusing to see prince and Calvin and Sherman and all of the other tough guys out on the dance floor. It is an incredible anomaly knowing what I know about them, to see them smiling and doing such an un-tough thing as dancing. When Sherman passes I look at him for an instant too long and he returns to tell me that he’s going to kick my ass. The threat just gets lost in a sea of threats and challenges and difficulties that seem to be much larger than I am.
There is a scale problem developing in my life. Things are getting too big. After school I see Reggie Jefferson, an underclassman, a fourth grader, a skinny Black boy pushing little Timmy Phillips down. Timmy gets up, brushes himself off, tells Reggie to stop it, and gets a return trip face-down to the pavement. Reggie gives him a little kick in the ribs and walks away. This becomes a daily routine for these two for the next several months, although Reggie introduces an imaginative variety in his little assaults.
There is something weirdly reassuring in knowing that I am not the only person who is having difficulties with others. It didn’t occur to me to stick up for little Tim, it just seemed like his world, just like I had my world. His world had Reggie, my world had Prince, Calvin, and Sherman. Most of us had our tormenters, although I could never figure out who was bothering Saylor or Ken McPherson. They appeared to be immune and it couldn’t have been just because Ken’s mother ironed his plaid flannel shirts every day or that he had a haircut and a good combing with Vitalis. He smiled a lot and wasn’t a shrimp, who knows. Some guys attracted trouble and some didn’t. I was in between, getting my share.
Guys whose fathers ate peas with a knife were dishing out the trouble and guys who were tended to by a mother or older sister were getting creamed. It was that simple. The Rowsley brothers actually lived in a small shack in the middle of a junkyard. There were three of them and rumor had it that they were so bad that they didn’t even go to school. We used to ski-bob behind moving cars in the snow with them and they always seemed pretty happy to me. Their mother was absent and the one time I entered their house, looking for Mitzi, their father was in a t-shirt with holes in it, sure enough, eating peas with a knife.
I didn’t watch a lot of television but I sure enjoyed the shows I saw. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a favorite. Those characters had a beautiful, friendly banter that was a comfort. I find it interesting that networks and cable TV show Black men getting run down and clobbered by police every night of the week now, but “Amos ‘n’ Andy” has to remain under wraps because it reflects poorly on Black people. That dog Farfel always gave me a hint of the creeps the way he clacked his teeth after spelling Nestle’s and saying “chocolate.” He seems like a refugee from a seedy roadside carnival with oversized rotted wood sculptures of malevolent clowns. Dobie Gillis was at the top of my chart. He was so damned congenial and optimistic. His mother and father seemed so normal, although I didn’t think being a grocer was as cool as being an engineer. Mike Nelson (Lloyd Bridges) of “Seahunt” was intensely cool. Spin and Marty seemed a little wimpy and like they would be on the receiving end of a hard time in Perry Flats. The Hardy Boys would do all right. The Beaver and Dennis the Menace would get destroyed immediately. Wally would find the Beaver’s beatings perplexing but he would also get his ass kicked. The boys his age had already done time in juvenile hall for thievery, setting fires, and stealing cars, not to mention gang fighting at the Rollerama and down at the A&W. Lassie would be of little use to Timmy. Jon Gnagy, a true magician and off the charts for thrills that could be achieved in one’s own home. There was not much time for television due to the paper route and Mom’s need for an audience, but the programs I watched were a joy for the most part.
Friday night November 15, 1959 all hell broke loose. I finished my route, Mom came home at 10:30 half drunk, Teresa was in her bedroom working on a report on the atom for her eighth grade science class, Regan was asleep, and Katy was late. She was supposed to be at home holding the fort. She was over at an off-base pad shared by Bughie and three of his Air Force buddies. Mom knew the address, and she asked me to accompany her on her trip across town to retrieve Katy. Independent, strong-willed Katy. Wild Katy with a mind of her own. The same Katy who was never present for Mom’s monologues and was never asked to fetch Mom a beer.
Her distribution to the homes of relatives during my parents’ dramas began a few years before Regan, Teresa, and I began to get distributed. She was definitely treated more poorly by my grandfather (Dad’s father) than the rest of us, who were doted upon by him and showered with little gifts and special treatment. Katy got a razor strap across the ass for relatively minor infractions usually involving sassing. Katy sassed all authority from the time she was six and paid the price throughout her life. The sassing never stopped with her and you either slapped her, strapped her, scratched her, fell in love, or just left her alone for fear she would kick your ass. I always left her alone for fear she would kick my ass which she did anyway every once in a while just to remind me who was boss.
Katy was at the center of the “Sophie’s Choice” that was delivered to my mother by my Dad after he learned of Mom’s pregnancy by the Marine pilot. Katy was one year old at the time, 1945, and Dad has just returned from the fighting in the South Pacific that damaged his hearing. The choice went like this: “You can keep the child you are expecting and I’ll take Katy. We’ll get a divorce and you will be on your own. I’ll never see you again and you will never see Katy again or you can put this child you are expecting up for adoption and keep our marriage intact.”
Mom put the newborn up for adoption, thus losing two great loves of her life in a span of three months: the death of her Marine lover who she later said was the only true love of her life, and the loss of her baby daughter, who was removed from her ten days after she was born. Dad would be sorry for the rest of his life for this exercise. It was a turning point in his life. He quickly changed from strapping, confident war hero to an angry, confused, cuckold fighting for his dignity.
Mom hasn’t liked Katy much since the day when she made the decision to give up her other baby for her. Mom is a blamer and she blames Katy for the loss of her baby, her love child. Katy and Mother had a run-in a couple of years ago when Mom’s boyfriend Chuck, a Spokane disk jockey who fashioned himself the Big Bopper’s twin brother, made a pass at Katy and she responded by kissing him.
“Hey baby, that’s a what I liiiike,” he said to Katy.
So for a while Chuck the Bopper, 25 years old, was making it with my 34-year-old mother and her 14-year-old fully-developed daughter. Mom found out and there was a scratch-level fight and lots of screaming. Katy was told in very direct terms, which were very loud, to stay the hell away from Chuck.
Chuck was barrel-chested. He wore white shirts with frills up around the top buttons. He said it was Chantilly lace, but Mom said she had a small piece of Chantilly lace on her prom dress, and Chuck was putting us on.
Chuck was back in the house in a few days and he and my mother seemed to be getting along quite well. Mom was sitting on his lap one afternoon in the dark living room with her skirt hiked up and Chuck’s big, hammy hand on her naked thigh. She was kissing his neck when I interrupted to ask where my socks were.
“Go out and play in the traffic!” Chuck suggested.
“Chucky, honey, be nice,” Mom said cooing in his ear.
“Okay then, go play with some razor blades,” said The Bopper.
I took the hint and left them to their devices.
There were many physical fights between Mom and Katy over the years. They ranged from the yelling and slapping, to the scratching-slapping, to the slugging to the wrestling and slugging. The night Mom tried to pick Katy up from Bughie’s apartment there was a full-blown jambalaya. Mom and I walk up three flights of stairs, Mom is already breathing hard and shaking. Mom knocks on the door. One of Bughie’s buddies answers in his skivvies and stocking feet. He has pitched a tent but it is collapsing as Mom introduces herself. There is giggling from more than one female in the background. The young man at the door is covered in splotches of white stuff. It looks like grease. Mom has interrupted a “Crisco” party.
“Hey Bughie! Get over here, there’s someone at the door for you!”
Mom and I wait as the slippery guy returns to the giggles. Bughie shows up at the door, towering over Mom and me.
“Katy’s busy, Molly, can she call you later?” He sounds annoyed and a little intimidating, and I’m surprised to hear him call my mother by her first name. It sounds a little disrespectful.
“Where’s my daughter?” Mom says as she pushes Bughie aside and marches into the living room then into a back bedroom. Katy has, by this time, put her panties on but is still Criscoed and is snapping her bra over her hefty cleavage when Mom commands “Get dressed right this minute!! You’re coming home with me!”
“Like hell I am,” Katy said.
Mom slapped Katy across the face hard. Katy slugged Mom directly on the nose. Mom returned to the hallway with her hands over her face.
“Katy hit me!” she cried. Mom’s nose is bleeding profusely. Blood is dripping through her fingers and onto the floor. I think, Wow! Katy hit Mom! I don’t know whose side I am on but I know we are outnumbered.
“I want you to go in there and tell Katy to come home,” Mom cried in a sorry whimper, still in shock at Katy’s violent rebellion. I’m not going to do it.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mom said, her voice shaking.
Katy came home the following day and things proceeded as usual. She didn’t leave home or anything dramatic and Mom treated her with her usual quasi-affectionate distance. I was surprised that Mom didn’t kick her out of the house.
Katy began taking care of us as though she were our mother when she was in fourth grade in Richland, Washington, the year my mother was committed to the V.A. in Topeka. Katy cooked our breakfast, ironed our clothes, and walked us to John Ball Elementary School where I was in kindergarten. It was Katy and Dad running the household until we were split up later that year. Regan and I were sent up to Holden, Washington, in the North Cascades to live with our grandmother and grandfather Gilliland, not unlovely people at this point in their lives. My grandfather was a foreman in the copper mine and my grandmother remained home to drink. Katy and Teresa were sent to live with some distant relatives who were put out by the imposition but made the best of it, as did most people we were dumped on. ***
There are three Western programs in a row on television on Saturday night, beginning with “Sugarfoot,” then “Have Gun, Will Travel,” then “Gunsmoke.” We rate my mother’s male friends by how long they last. If they leave during “Sugarfoot” they are probably not coming back. If a suitor brings me a gift, they never bring gifts for the girls, almost always an aircraft of some sort, they usually stay until “Gunsmoke” is over. Even if they bring me a gift, they will not say anything to me on the way out. They walk past me toward the living room door with their eyes averted. This is especially true if they stay all night and I am up watching TV Sunday morning.
Over the years we lived on Perry, I received a balsa wood model of an L-19 Army spotter plane with the engine missing, a small, black plastic stunt plane operated by control line with an .049 engine that never worked, a ten-pound plaster model of a Boeing supersonic jet that was once used for wind-tunnel testing, and three Revell models in the Air Force F-series—the F-100, F-102, and F-104. These were among my favorite toys. They were easy to assemble, they had a very nicely painted picture on the box, and when I got tired of them I could squirt airplane glue on them and set them on fire.
One of the sugarfeet slammed the door of Mom’s bedroom and walked back into the living room and asked for his model back. It was a “Chance-Vought Cutlass,” one of the few gifts not in the “F” series. It was a very neat plane with a twin tail. John Glenn flight tested it during the fifties and discovered that when he fired the cannons at high speed, the vibration nearly shook the wings apart. I had already twisted and pulled several small gray plastic pieces from the parts vine. I was examining the decal sheet when the young man stepped into my world. I asked if I could please keep the plane. He said okay and I offered him a ‘sarsparilla’ (that’s Sugarfoot talk for root beer). Mom heard us talking and came into the living room.
“Aren’t you gone yet?”
“Going—going,” said my new friend. “thanks for the drink, podnuh,” he said to me.
Mom said he was a cute guy but he told a horrible Jew joke and she wouldn’t tolerate that kind of humor in her house.
“What’s the joke?” I asked, leaving off the word ‘Mother’ because it sounded so strange to call Mom ‘Mother.’ I just couldn’t do it. I rarely called her anything since being forbidden to call her ‘Mom.’ I started calling her ‘Captain’ in my mind.
“I’m not going to tell you. There is never any reason to re-tell a horrible, cruel joke. Any re-telling just spreads the cancer.”
The nearest Mom got to a true romance that year was Bill Lewis. He smoked a pipe and wore a tweed hat. He was an engineer, although a desk type, not a field type. He took me duck hunting on a very chilly late autumn day out in some grassy hills north of the city. We sat behind a mound for hours and hours waiting for some ducks. During this time he let me hold the shotgun. He had leather patches on the elbows of his jacket. He brought flowers over to the house and he made major inroads into my mother’s heart when he brought her a small, hardbound copy of Robert Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” She loved that book. When Bill stopped coming around, I asked my mother where he was. She told me that he couldn’t handle all of the children. Too many kids. It was our fault he was gone.
Then there was Robbie the coin-op guy. He was a coin collector for a chain of Laundromats. He always had many canvas bags filled with quarters on the back seat of his late model Ford sedan, and every time he came over, he would show me his quarters and allow me to pick up a bag or two. I thought he was a little dopey to be showing me his money. I never showed anyone my money. Robbie and Mom got in a loud shouting match one Saturday morning back in her bedroom, and he came huffing out leaving without saying goodbye. My Mom came out a minute later and told us that he hit her in the mouth. She called Bud up from the basement and they discussed Bud’s mission. Get Robbie!
Robbie was seven inches taller than Bud but he was thin and willowy as opposed to lean and mean like my grandfather, who spent the first 20 years of his career sawing down very large trees on one end of a 12-foot-long saw.
Bud liked to think of himself as a macho sort, as do most heavy construction men. He hadn’t been in hibernation long when the Robbie incident occurred, so he was still in pretty good shape. After Mom told Bud of the assault, Bud volunteered to go over to Robbie’s apartment and “teach him a lesson.”
Bud was gone for a couple of hours and he returned with spatters of blood on his white shirt. He described in great detail his confrontation at Robbie’s door, and the ensuing scuffle. Bud claimed that he punched Robbie in the nose, which was the source of the spatters on his shirt. We essentially believed him, but my sisters and I discussed the possibility that the blood belonged to Bud. ***
Dan Burnett was a Top Forty radio programmer who looked like a game-show host, a cross between Gary Moore and Allen Ludden. He had gray hair and was very aloof. He didn’t speak to children. Mom met him when she was a disk jockey at KPEG, a Spokane radio station that had all-female disk jockeys. Mom dyed her hair blonde at his request so she would look more like Marilyn Monroe, but when I saw her I started screaming and she changed it back to black the next day. This was when I was only 7. I don’t think I would care one way or another now as a fifth grader. Burnett smoked a pipe and when he wasn’t smoking the pipe, he was fooling around with it. I remember coming home from school one day in third grade and seeing these two making out on the living room sofa in very dim light. My Mom said “Hi” in a druggy, dim voice, and Burnett suggested I go play cowboys and Indians. This was while my Mom was still married, and she had just moved us all out of my grandmother’s house in San Jose, California. She hated my grandmother immensely and the feeling was mutual. My grandmother knew about Burnett and why my Mom wanted to get her own apartment, and she thought it was just immensely rotten. She thought her son, my Dad, was a flawless man who deserved better from his wife. She told me this one afternoon. I remember it well because it was the afternoon I got caught shoplifting a tube of airplane glue and threatened with prison. I loved the smell of airplane glue and peeling patches of dried glue from the ends of my fingers like it was skin.
In early December, my bank account was growing to inspiring proportions. I had over $60 and was excited by the prospect of buying some nice Christmas gifts. I usually just made little drawings or watercolors for Christmas gifts, but this year I could afford to buy some nice things. In another couple of weeks Bud would begin to stir from his hibernation and get into the Christmas spirit, but that was still a ways off. Teresa was hard at work on a report on Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” I was astounded by the engravings of Gustave Dore. They conveyed such immense desolation, such incredible loneliness and terror.
McKinley grade school is a very bulky minimally articulated 3-story red brick schoolhouse, like a dark, overgrown Monopoly hotel. Its corridors were poorly lit from the dusty double-hung windows. The hardwood floors were scarred from generations of kids. The hallways smell like newsprint, crayons, and white paste glue. My classroom is on the third floor, down at the end of the corridor. Mr. Irons is in a crabby mood this afternoon. He caught Biff smearing little bits of dog shit behind the collars of the boys’ and girls’ jackets in the cloak room. He pinched Biff’s collarbone very, very hard on the slow walk back to Biff’s desk, and then all the way down to Mr. Gordon’s office, where the paddle was administered.
Mr. Irons had made a big mistake but he wouldn’t know it until springtime, when Biff and Skip’s older brother Zane got out of jail.
The very best thing about McKinley was the sixth-grade girls. Marilyn, Carolyn, and Rita decided to like me for reasons I’ll never know. They talked to me at recess, they smiled at me in the corridors, which warmed my heart for hours. They spoke to me briefly after school, and one Friday night, after the first snow, they all came over to my house to see if I would run to the Washington Water Power Christmas Tree and help them steal some light bulbs from the huge cedar tree that had been illuminated the night before. I had such an intense crush on Marilyn that I could not believe she was actually standing on my front porch steps.
“Hi, Jimmy!” she said, revealing her chipped front tooth. She has curly blonde hair and is an inch taller than me. I think I am in love with her. I bought her a heart-shaped locket on a gold chain from my savings, but I’ve never had the courage to give it to her. The girls came crashing into our living room, and I was a little nervous about having them in our house, for a couple of reasons: I didn’t know when Mom was coming home, or if she’d be reasonable or staggering, and I didn’t know if the place was clean enough for company. They swept into the living room, and after asking where my bedroom was, they rushed upstairs to my room. I followed, and before long, they were engaged in a pillow fight with each other on my little bed and around it. Rita asked if I had any cigarettes. I returned downstairs and found a pack. I brought one back to Rita.
I returned downstairs for a match.
“Where’s the ash tray?” she asked, like a veteran smoker.
“You can use the bowl,” I said, pointing to a small white bowl that had a bit of milk in the bottom and some drying Bran Flakes around the edge.
“Show us your stuff,” Carolyn demanded in her Tennessee accent. “Your toys and stuff,” she added. I showed them my Jon Gnagy lesson drawings and they were amazed, or at least they acted amazed.
“Geezus! That looks just like a dog! How’dja get so good?” said Rita, exhaling a big puff of smoke.
“I watch the Jon Gnagy show every Saturday and practice the lessons,” I said.
“Will you draw me a picture?” Marilyn asked.
I couldn’t believe she was even talking to me, let alone asking for something that would be so easy to give her. It was really thrilling to have them in my house, in my room. I couldn’t go over to the big Christmas tree because I was waiting for the skip calls. As it turned out there were none that night.
The girls never came over to my house again. Their visit was just a wonderful, fluky, crazy girl thing that happens once in a lifetime.
My love for Marilyn kept growing. I screwed up my courage and gave her a 45rpm single of “Let the Little Girl Dance,” my favorite song at the time. She never acknowledged receipt of the record but she did thank me for the drawing I gave her of a small finned dinosaur. ***
Lars Olafson was a 28-year-old electrical technician who had just completed an 8-year stint in the Air Force. My Mom met him at the Aces & Eights where she impressed him with her stories, political/religious commentary, and raunchy jokes she picked up from the meat packers who worked in her building. She was always in the middle of a small audience whenever she was at the tavern. The audience was primarily men, and after a couple of hours of holding forth, she would give one the nod, he was chosen for the night.
When Mom and Lars came home I had already completed my skip trip and was taking my boots off. I stuffed the socks inside even though they were wet, so they wouldn’t stink up the joint. Teresa was curled up on the sofa reading Coleridge, and it was one of those rare Friday nights when Katy did not have a date. Regan was in bed by this time. Mom introduced Lars, who was skinny and shy and was wearing a short-sleeved cotton shirt, even though it had begun snowing a week ago.
Mom breaks the ice by asking us about school. Teresa mentions that there is a talent show in mid-December, and she and her friends are doing “Happy Talk” from “South Pacific,” dressed in sailor suits. Mom asks for a preview and drags out the big Wollensak tape recorder to record Teresa’s performance. Teresa is a surprisingly good singer and her dance steps are lively and assured. Her performance gets the conversation rolling.
Lars looks over and asks, “Tell me, Jimmy, just how long have you known Molly?”
I just stare at him, completely unable to process the question, and since he used my name, there was no way I could pretend he was talking to someone else. I continued to look perplexed when Mom came to my rescue.
“Jimmy’s my little soldier—he’s steel true and blade straight.”
Katy could not contain herself and erupted in laughter as did Teresa.
Okay kids, time for bed!” Great song, T.C.,” Mom said as she turned off the recorder. ***
Sara Leaf, the young Southern girl, called me as soon as I walked in the door and said that she did not receive her paper. I know I delivered her paper because it is one of only two on her floor in the apartment building overlooking the Spokane River. My only apartment building. I ask her if a neighbor might have “borrowed” it, and she says she doubts that very much.
“I’ve got to have my paper because I’ve got to look at the classified ads for a job. Jerry’s gone back to Alabama for training and I’ve got to get a job.”
It always mystified me when people assumed I was a qualified recipient of their private information. I don’t think they quite realized who I was. They just needed to talk and it didn’t pertain much of anything about me.
“I’ve got to have my paper,” she said in her very nice voice.
“I don’t have any extras. I’ll have to buy one on the way over.”
I wondered all the way over to her apartment why she wouldn’t just go out herself and buy a paper. When she answered she was in her bathrobe.
“Thank you so much, you’re just a doll—oops! You probably don’t like that. You’re a little gentleman. Would you like some hot chocolate?”
It always made me nervous when people offered me anything. It seemed to break through a barrier I found more comfortable intact. I never accepted offers of food (did I look that hungry?) but tonight I accepted Sara’s hot chocolate and sat on her only piece of furniture to drink it. She fussed with the television on the floor a few feet away and sat next to me as we watched “What’s My Line?”
I smelled a hint of perfume that immediately shot me back to 1955 when I was staying at the St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Topeka. It was the smell of a woman at the television station where about 30 of us were bussed to sing carols on a local program, and sit around a tree under hot studio lights and open charity gifts. The woman had lots of jewelry and I thought she must be rich. She was very bossy and she smelled like heaven. Sara smelled like heaven and when I looked over, her raggedy terrycloth bathrobe had opened considerably from her waist up and I could see the entire curve of her right breast, even her nipple. She acted like everything was just as it was supposed to be, and asked me how I like my cocoa.
“I love the cocoa!” I said, my heart beating much faster than normal. “I think I have to go home pretty soon.”
Sara thanked me for bringing over her paper. I gave her a great big smile.
I walked home through the foggy darkness over the new snow, spinning from time to time to look at my footprints. I was very, very happy and it would be Christmas soon, and tomorrow, Saturday, I was going downtown for some early shopping. I loved my paper route. Lots of hard work, lots of responsibility, and lots and lots of money.
Bud came up from the basement early Saturday morning while we were watching “Fury,” and asked if anyone wanted to join him for breakfast. He was driving over to The Wagon Wheel for French toast and sausage. We asked if he could drop us off at Bon Marche, Spokane’s largest department store, afterwards, and he agreed.
God, it was fun going out with Bud when he was in a good mood. After his first month in hibernation he was ready for his holiday season break. He even shaved and put on a clean pair of jeans.
Bud always named his cars. He purchased the largest used car that he could afford, its size being more important than the mechanical condition. “Heavy Betty” was a 1951 Buick. Betty had no reverse gear, which caused Bud to reach into his more creative recesses for solutions to otherwise minor driving/parking situations. He always tried to park on a slight incline so that he could just roll away. Our street is flat. We are not blocked in, so off we go! Breakfast with Bud.
Our favorite comedy routine is Bud’s “Mr. Gimpy,” based loosely on a fellow patient at the Menninger Clinic, known both to mother and Bud.
Mr. Gimpy was, at one time, a very successful architect who worked 70-hour weeks for a large firm in Kansas City. He was the chief designer and he would often storm through the office smashing models of skyscrapers and tearing very pretty drawings off the wall. All of the other architects were afraid of him and they all tried very hard to please him. He wore glasses with very thick perfectly round pitch black frames and would announce his presence with the question, “Do we have any little Berninis in this class?” as if his colleagues and fellow employees were all his students.
Mr. Gimpy was in a very bad car accident. He was at the hospital for months, and then in bed at home for many more months. His wife left him with their two children and he was very slowly nursed back to health by his aunt. When he was finally able to talk, he had developed a speech defect that made him sound retarded, although his mental capacities were still quite high. He walked with a limp and pretended to be a Chinese shopkeeper as he padded around the grounds of the Menninger Clinic in his bathrobe and very expensive alpaca slippers. When he danced, he always carried a glass of milk in his hand, and sometimes carried a glass of milk all day. Mom said Mr. Gimpy had the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen, and she loved dancing with him even when cold milk splashed down her back.
“Aaah Mr. Meifert,” Bud would begin, mimicking Mr. Gimpy. “I have looked into your requess for credik and I will say to you now if I don’t say it in all sincerity, your credik, it smell like shrimp and not jus any shrimp, at that, your credik shrimp are stinking like the shrimp that sit in wet, hot boxes under my old stall in fish market at Shanghai. They smell so bad if you get what I am drifting at for you. Do you get my information or not Mr. Meifert? I mus deny your requess for credik!”
Mr. Gimpy’s ex-wife and children visited him once at the Menninger Clinic and the night they brought him back from dinner in Topeka, he killed himself. Bud honored his memory by institutionalizing some of his routines.
We arrived at The Wagon Wheel, and it took Bud 15 minutes to park Heavy Betty so that he would not be blocked by another, thus preventing his roll forward to start, and so that he could roll at all. Bud is only a couple of inches taller than I am, and he has not run to winter fat yet, so he is very stocky and muscular. His cigarette dangles from the corner of his lips and he refers to a couple of nearby drivers as “mouth breathers” and “ass scratchers.” We find a big, sunny booth, Bud orders his coffee, and proceeds to hold the sugar container over his cup, pouring granulated sugar into his coffee for at least 5 seconds, then he adds the half-and-half. We order, and as we’re eating, But tells us stories of life on the Orphanage Farm.
His favorite story is of being held in the palm of Bronko Nagurski’s hand one chilly afternoon as a third grader. The orphans were driven out to the Chicago Bears’ practice location for a game they had in Milwaukee. Bud remarked that the sausage we were eating was much like what they used to make on the farm, but the milk wasn’t as good, because on the farm, the cream that collected at the top of the bottles was mixed back in, and not removed for other products.
After breakfast, Bud drives us downtown and lets Teresa, Regan, and me out to begin our Christmas shopping. I have decided to spend my time shopping for my mother, and end up in the appliance department looking at waffle irons, frying pans, and toasters. The toasters are very shiny and beautifully curved. I really give this thing a good inspection. It is by far the most expensive single thing I have ever purchased in my life. Toaster it is. I buy some wrapping paper and ribbon and walk off to find my sisters.
Two more weeks until Christmas, and Bud was in full holiday swing. He purchased an album of Christmas songs, including my favorite, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I also like “White Christmas” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” It was so good to hear her sounding happier after “I’m Sorry,” the saddest song I had ever heard.
Katy had made some money at the A&W, especially counting her tips. Every night she worked she would come home with a large Coke cup filled with silver change, mostly quarters. Sometimes she made as much in a couple of nights as I made in a month. In any event, she would be springing for some gifts.
The only sad note to the pre-Christmas season is the weekend my Dad came over from Sandpoint to return us to the woods north of Sandpoint in search of a Christmas tree. It was wonderful to get out into the deep snowy woods out near Lake Coeur d’Alene. It was fun searching for just the right tree, not too tall, with full branches and a nice top for our angel ornament. We found the tree and cut it and dragged it through the snow to Dad’s Pontiac. Dad drove us back to Spokane and said goodbye. He was depressed and lonesome and would be spending the holidays alone. His Swiss girlfriend had returned to Europe. We had a big tree decorating party with Katy, Teresa, Regan, Bud, Mom, and myself. Mitzi and Punky were having a good time getting lots of attention. Bud bought many varieties of hard colorful Christmas candy and set it all around the house in bowls. He bought large bars of chocolate and boxes of chocolate. He bought a bottle of rum and made a batch of hot buttered rum for the tree decorating party.
The big debate this year was whether or not to fling icicles all over the tree or leave them off in a more tasteful style. Mom liked the full-bodied look of a tree covered with the hundreds of strings of shiny lead, so we spent a few extra hours carefully placing the “icicles” all over the tree. We placed a bed sheet around the base of the tree and from that night until Christmas Eve the pile grew larger and larger. Bud was very happy and a very big help to my mother, whose holiday energies flagged at a rate that accelerated downward right up until the unwrapping ceremony that we always had on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas morning.
Five more days till Christmas! Grandmother and Grandad Gilliland were coming in a day or two and we had not seen them since we lived with them during the winter of 1954-55. That year it snowed over 100 inches in Holden, their copper-mining village in the North Cascades. In order to keep us outdoors as long as possible during the weekends, Grandad Gilliland (Bob) would send us out back into the snowy woods with a salt shaker to catch squirrels. He said if you sprinkle salt on a squirrel’s tail it will hold still so you can catch them. I spent a couple of hours walking through knee-deep snow with my shaker. If you walked out into the woods behind our house in Holden, you would next encounter civilization in Western Russia, if you didn’t encounter a lone logger or two in Southern Canada. There was a mid-size, very rapidly flowing stream just a few blocks away on the edge of town, and because all of the cars were parked in a lot before the first snowstorm, it was safe for kids to walk around town. My four-year-old sister Regan and I walked down to the snow-covered stream bank a few times. There was a lot of sledding on the hills around town, and a big school bazaar a few days before Christmas. I remember getting a Disney Little Golden Book, “Chip ‘n’ Dale,” for my gift. This could have been a medieval village if it were not for the indoor plumbing and electric light.
Grandmother slept in my bed during their stay and it was my job to empty her bedpan each morning. It was a weird job and now I knew what Eddie’s poor pot was for.
Grandad brought a case of Oly stubbies from the trunk of his black ’36 Chevy. He put them on the back porch and drank them warm or cold, it didn’t matter to him. He chewed Copenhagen snuff all day, spitting the residue onto a saucepan that sat on the floor next to any chair he sat in. He was a friendly old coot and didn’t talk much at all. He enjoyed sitting with his drugs, and smiled on a regular basis, just to let everyone know he was a sociable chap. Mom spent more time down at her tavern during the few days of their stay and asked that they spend the last day before Christmas on the road home, as her memories were beginning to get the best of her, and she didn’t know how much longer she could hold out. A few nights before Christmas when the area below our tree was piled high with gifts, Mom donned her sci-fi robe, her beer, her cigarettes, and her dog Punky, and proceeded to tell us her harrowing childhood Christmas tale. It was short and mean.
When she was five years old, living in Potlatch, Idaho, her parents left home on a four-day drunk. Mom was home alone with her younger sister, who was still in diapers in her crib. No parents, scrounging for food, eventually eating flour and water paste, and caring for her baby sister through the scary nights. On Christmas Eve, the third night into the ordeal, Mom was huddled up in a corner freezing when she looked up in the near blackness and saw a man in black clothing hovering over her sister’s crib. She screamed a silent scream and huddled in terror as the figure swept from side to side in a slow drifting, floating motion for hours and hours. Every time she looked up, the man was still there in the cold. She could only sit in her corner and watch as the hours crawled by and she finally fell asleep. She was sure it was the devil, who had come to steal her baby sister away. Her mother and father arrived late the next night and in their drunken stupor slapped her around in the living room of their two-room shack for not changing the baby’s diapers.
Mom proceeded to tell tales of Christmases past during the depths of the Depression when she was selling apples in the snow and going to school in ratty clothes and getting beaten by her father and ignored by her mother. She told the story of throwing a rock in the face of an old logger who said something snotty about her sister’s birthmark. The rock damned near put the man’s eye out and Mom was punished for her deed by her parents who didn’t want to upset the social order on the dirt streets of Camp Five, Oregon. They were still living in a tent and those in the shacks were not to be trifled with.
It was Friday night around 9:00 when the telephone rang, interrupting Mom’s tales. It was Sara Leaf. I had “forgotten” her paper again. For the first time since my paper route began, I put on a second pair of socks and laced up my boots with great enthusiasm. I felt very sorry for Mom, but the sorrow didn’t last. I didn’t know what was going to happen, or what I was getting myself into, but I liked this game that was beginning.
Sara’s husband Jerry was not going to be home for the holidays. He was spending them with his parents in Kentucky. I knew she was lonesome, and in a way, so was I. After running for half a mile or so, I decided to walk so I wouldn’t be out of breath when I arrived. I walked through the falling snow, and could see under the occasional streetlight that the flakes were big and fat and wet, perfect for snowballs. Sara was wearing pink pedal pushers and a cotton blouse when she answered her door. She was in socks and was wearing red lipstick.
“Hi, you little fool! Where’s my paper?” she asked playfully. “I’m gonna have to turn you over my knee if you forget me one more time!”
She fixed us some hot chocolate again and we sat on her sofa listening first to the radio, “Personality,” “Johnny You’re Too Young,” “Rockin’ Robin,” and “One Night With You,” by Elvis, before switching off the radio and turning on the television.
“Whatcher favorite show?” she asked.
“I like “Jon Gnagy—Learn to Draw” best, but that’s not a story show, just a lesson show. My favorite show is “Dobie Gillis.”
“Why do you like him so much?”
“I like ‘em all: Dobie, his friend Maynard, Chatsworth Osborne Junior, and Thalia, she’s so pretty. They are all very happy and they like each other and don’t fight. Dobie is always happy and his father and mother are very nice to him and they’re always around.”
“Guess what my favorite show is?” she asked in a very nice voice.’
“American Bandstand,” I replied.
“No, it’s ‘Sky King.’ I like Penny. She’s so smart and independent and she’s always helping to solve important problems and she’s not too bad lookin’. Say—I sure would like it if y’all would scratch my back. Could you do that for me?”
“I guess so.”
Sara turned toward the wall and pulled her legs up under her, Indian style, and I began scratching through her blouse and she was unbuttoning it from the front. After a minute she slipped her blouse off and was naked from the waist up. I was nervous and excited in a wonderful way, and Sara was cooing and humming and saying “That’s nice, that’s so very nice. Up a little, more to the left.”
She was purring like a kitten. I felt valuable and I scratched up around her neck under her incredibly fine curls and down her shoulders, just like Mom had me do her back. After a while she got up and turned off the television and put on a long-playing record of Chopin’s piano concertos. It was the prettiest music I have ever heard, and it seemed perfect for back-scratching on a snowy winter night.
“Okay now, lemme scratch yours,” she said, and she turned around and before I turned around we were face to face and I could smell a faint trace of that magical perfume and my memory jumped back to that television studio and that rich lady and then Sara kissed me and asked me if I wanted to spend the night with her.
“I’ll fix you breakfast in the morning and we can watch “Mighty Mouse” cartoons.”
“I better tell my Mom.” I asked my Mom if I could spend the night at Higley’s house. Mom agreed.
I asked Sara if she wanted a foot rub like the ones I gave my Mom, and she said yes. We rubbed and scratched and petted and hugged each other for two more hours and then unfolded the sofa into a bed. Sara pulled some sheets and blankets out of her closet and we were all set. We had our beautiful breakfast and I walked home with a wonderful new friend flowing through my thoughts and snow melting on my warm face. I was happy. ***
I dreaded Wednesday deliveries. Wednesday was supermarket advertising day. There was an extra eight- or ten-page section in each paper. The extra weight changed a full load of papers from just manageable to excessively heavy. It was always difficult to stuff all of the Wednesday papers in the bag at one time. My route was spread out over a considerable distance, and it did not make sense to deliver half of the papers and then return to my corner to load up the second half. I had tried hiring Larry White a couple of times to carry 10 or 15 papers at the beginning of the route, but he was too expensive. He was a profit sponge. Except on the really impossible Wednesdays, I just piled all the papers into the bags, squeezed underneath, and began to try to stand up. It was a contorted version of organized weightlifting’s ‘dead lift.’ Once I got to my feet, I wobbled and staggered for a while, then usually sat back down before the first paper was delivered. Sometimes, on the worst days, I would leave my full bags behind a bush and run ahead delivering some of the closer addresses. I didn’t like to leave my papers unattended. People would walk by and just take them. I was always tired out halfway through the Wednesday delivery. My feet were sore, and if it was cold, they were sore and cold. Wednesdays in the rain were surreal. Wednesdays in slushy snow were a particular challenge. Wednesdays at night in the middle of winter in a snowstorm built character. The rest of it was just annoying and difficult.
Christmas Eve, the night of our family’s gift exchange, is Wednesday this year. I spend the first days of the week wrapping all my gifts before going to bed. There is beautiful, cheerful Christmas music playing in the house, and with my grandparents gone, I have my bed back. We have all shaken and hefted our gifts many times, and it appears, by their weight, that Bud has really outdone himself.
My Mom’s parents, Grandmother and Grandad Gilliland, left the largest boxes before they were asked to leave. There was an odd feeling about their early departure. There is snow on the ground and “Jingle Bell Rock” really livens up the house. I just love the happy, up-tempo Christmas songs.
It’s Tuesday night. I’m home from the paper wars. Although I’m braced for the skip calls, a wait that is like waiting for the second shoe to drop, I feel good. Katy has really outdone herself with dinner. We all sit down at the table at the same time for the first time since Thanksgiving. She has prepared a meatloaf and mashed potatoes, my favorite food of all. I just love potatoes of all kinds, but especially mashed.
After dinner, Mom retires to her bedroom to switch into her sci-fi silk and polishes off her fourth beer before taking her place on her ‘throne.’ She calls for Mitzi to sit in her lap. Mitzi ignores her. Mitzi knows that Punky is her lap dog and doesn’t want to encroach. Mom calls Mitzi again and is once again ignored by Mitzi. Mom launches herself out of the easy chair and lurches toward Mitzi, who jumps out of the way. Mom chases Mitzi into a corner and grabs the frightened dog around the waist and walks toward the door with the shocked, shaking, silent dog under her arm. She stands on the front porch in the falling snow and heaves Mitzi as hard as she can out into the middle of a snow bank all the way out on the edge of the sidewalk. Mitzi is shocked. We are all shocked. It happened very fast.
“That’ll show that little bitch!” Mom growled, possessed by an evil force. “When I call for my dog, dammit, I want that dog in my lap. I saved that goddam dog and I expect some appreciation! I want to see some thankfulness! I want to see obedience! Get me a beer!” she demanded.
I walk out to Mitzi, who is shivering in the hole she made when she landed in the snow. She is afraid to get up. I pick her out of the snow and bring her back into the house. The mood is very un-Christmas-like all of a sudden. The black ghost has arrived.
“I said, get me a goddamned beer!” Mom screamed at all of us. We all ignored her and dispersed to our rooms. Mitzi was never the same after she was thrown into the snow. She learned to hop onto my mother’s lap on command, but she never had her bright happy look any more.
Mom turned out the light next to her chair and sat in the dark smoking for two more hours. I know, because I got a call at 10:00 p.m. to deliver a skipped paper.
“Honey, can you get me a beer before you leave? I’m sorry if I upset you. Be careful out there.”
When I got home from my route on Christmas Eve, everyone was waiting for me around the dinner table. Wow! Two nights in a row at the table, a record. Mom had the day off from work, and reprised her cooking routine from Thanksgiving, preparing a very large turkey, over 20 pounds, that barely fit into the oven.
Dinner was delicious and lighthearted with Bud at the table in a radiant mood. Mom was quiet and seemed a little ashamed of her recent behavior. She had not yet begun to drink, as far as I could tell. I was very tired from the Wednesday routine, but happy and very excited about opening presents. We had pumpkin pie for dessert and Mom made a pot of coffee for herself and Bud. It was really unusual and kind of comforting and homey to see her in the kitchen, not her normal habitat.
We all began to gather around the Christmas tree. It was magnificent in its quiet, steady, untwinkling splendor. We turned off the living room light and the tree just glowed. “Little Drummer Boy” played on the hi-fi and I was enjoying a piece of candy cane. Mom changed into a sci-fi robe so she would be more comfortable, and the two dogs sat quietly.
We took turns opening gifts, and Katy was first to open one, as determined by “Santa Claus” played by Bud wearing a red felt hat trimmed with white fuzz. Katy’s gift is from Teresa. It is a tube of very red lipstick. Next up is Regan, she opens a gift from Dad, a book on atomic power, with colorful illustrations, just what she always wanted. I open a gift from my grandparents. It is surprising in its elaborate complexity. It is a chemistry set with a microscope. It has twelve small jars of chemicals. They are very colorful and I wonder how they can afford such an extravagant present. I see Bud picking up the gift I got for Mom. The wrapping is shiny red with a big green ribbon. She smiles a big smile.
“Molly, this is for you from Jimmy,” Bud says as he hands her the box, one of the larger gifts under the tree. I am excited. I spent a long time shopping for this gift and feel like it is just perfect. She slowly unwraps it, smiling. She sees the photo of a toaster on the cardboard box and her face falls.
Uh-oh. My heart is sinking as I watch her expression change from cheerful anticipation to disappointment. She opens the box and pulls out the intensely shiny toaster that reflects all of the beautiful lights from the tree. The black cord is dangling as she holds it up, looks at it closely, and then smashes it into the wall next to the tree with all her might. It makes a loud metallic thump-clang and falls to the floor. She stands up and screams at me, “Don’t ever get a woman an appliance for a gift!!! How dare you give me a goddamned toaster on Christmas!!! A woman wants something pretty—a scarf, a necklace! Perfume! A GODDAMNED TOASTER!!! How could you???”
We were all stunned for a few Moments, then Katy reached for a gift with her name on it, usurping Bud’s role as Santa.
“What’s this!” she screamed—“a fucking sweater? I don’t want a fucking sweater!!!” No-one had ever heard Katy say the “F” word before, Mother forbid its use in the house. She hated that word.
Teresa picked out a gift and joined in. “Jeeesus!!! I don’t want roller skates!!! How did I wind up with roller skates!” She slammed each skate into the wall. They bounced and scared the heck out of us.
Then Bud opened a gift—a bathrobe—and tossed it so that it landed over the star on the tree top. “Keeerist!—not a bathrobe!! I’ve already got a bathrobe. I wanted a new pipe and some tobacco!”
Regan just sat and stared at the spectacle. I backed away from the tree, and pretty soon we all started laughing and tearing into all the gifts and throwing them against the wall. Mom started laughing and then she started crying and she got up and left the room. But, Katy, Teresa, Regan, and I just sat staring at each other.
“Why don’t we continue tomorrow morning?” Bud suggested. “Let’s go to bed.”
The day after Christmas was rather gloomy. No school, no route until 4:30. I had the whole day to fool around with my chemistry set and my oil paint set, my gift from Bud. I didn’t quite understand the chemistry set. A bunch of jars with different stuff in them. I mix the stuff together and voila! It stinks or foams or smokes. Okay. The oil paint set was much more of a challenge. I knew what paint was used for and I loved making pictures. This was special paint. It never dried. I didn’t understand the concept of tinting the colors, or muting the colors with their complements to reduce the brightness of the green, blue, and red. Bud included a small pad of “canvas” paper and I proceed to draw a few airplanes with the bristle brush, which made them look thick and not airworthy. I smeared out one of them, thus creating a big blue wave-like form, so that I turned it into a tidal wave. It was quite a threatening tidal wave that reminded me of a couple of the Gustave Dore etchings in their somber, overwhelming inevitability. The oil paint set was certainly over my head, but so was everything else, except for Saturday morning television and Sara. She was so nice to me. She reminds me of one of the big girls who would sit next to me in the television day room at St. Vincent’s home when I was in first grade. Irma was 17 and she would sit next to me and I would fill up with the most beautiful warm feeling. I wondered if Irma loved me and figured that she probably did, and I loved her too.
I put the oil paints away and placed the wet, never-to-dry paintings on the top of my dresser, where the wet oil accumulated dust for the next several months until I threw them out.
It was time for the route. It was getting dark and it had started to snow again. I walk past the hole in the snow made by Mitzi’s landing and wonder why my mother is in such a bad frame of mind. It is so much more than just a bad mood. She is getting more and more disturbed. She takes a lot of pills. I snap the wire on my bundle, load my bags halfway, then throw them over my shoulders. I finish loading the bags and start walking down Trent Street towards the first neighborhood on my route. I am sad. The first paper I toss comes unfolded in mid-air and it flies apart before it reaches the intended porch. This is not a good sign.
It is already dark and I’m at my first house. By house 40 I am cold and I take a shortcut over to the “Friendly Tavern” to warm up. A couple of bar patrons buy my extras so I have change for some peanuts. I take off my gloves and rub my hands together. It doesn’t help my feet much. Slush has soaked through my combat boots and my toes are cold. They stay cold all night.
Back on the route, folding papers and tossing them. Sometimes Thursday’s paper is rather fat too, so I put rubber bands on them to keep them from falling apart during the toss.
I reach into my jacket for a broken cigarette Bobby Saylor gave me weeks ago, and I try to smoke it somewhere between the 55th paper and the 60th. I just can’t stand those things and do not understand how anyone can smoke. I wonder what makes my mother smoke, and she smokes a lot. Katy smokes and she smokes a lot. Bud smokes a lot. Our house is always filled with smoke. Maybe I have already smoked my half-pack a day without even lighting up. I don’t need my own cigarettes, I’m smoking everyone else’s.
When I get to the apartment my route is almost finished. I’m off the dark streets and out of the places where there is nowhere to run if some of the bigger guys decide to run me down and whomp me a little bit. I have hurried past Lupo’s. It scares me more than anything. I think it’s because he’s retarded. The whole retarded thing just makes my heart sink. My Mom knows a family with an encephalitic son. Seeing him just makes me mad. Sometimes Mom will drag us through the Goodwill store to shop for something to take over to them. That is depressing too. I always hated rummaging through bins of other people’s discarded things looking for something for me to wear. I liked new clothes and new clothes only. There’s nothing as depressing as second-hand corduroy, and my mother just did not understand that. I went to school for weeks with holes in the knees of my jeans because I refused to wear pants from the Goodwill. Maybe I was afraid some kid would recognize his old pants and make fun of me. I’m glad that never happened. I wouldn’t let it happen.
Mom loved going to Goodwill. It seems like she lives there on Saturdays. She’s always bringing home some ugly, crappy lamp or something—a Melmac dinner set complete with cigarette burns on the edges of the saucers and plates. I can just see the guy leaning over that particular aqua-blue plate, eating his peas with a knife, while his boys are out terrorizing the neighborhood. There is a story behind every plate in Perry Flats.
Mom really knows how to ruin Christmas. At first I feel sorry for her that I’m so stupid I don’t know how to shop for presents, and then I get angry that she threw Mitzi into the snow and threw a scene at the tree. Maybe she’s mad because Robbie never called again. What did she expect? As it turned out, Bud broke his nose. I know this because Robbie called the police and they came out to the house to discuss it.
The police came to our house three times that year. Once for the Robbie matter, once when Mom left a pot of beans on the stove while we visited her cousin Kerry who drank Coke for breakfast and had brown front teeth. The beans burned, the house filled with smoke, the police came as well as a fire truck.
The third time the police came was after a knock-down drag-out fight between Katy and Mom when Mom threatened to call the base commander and force one of the airmen Katy was sleeping with to marry her after news that Katy was pregnant. That was in the late summer, and Katy was planning on leaving anyway. I climb the apartment stairs up to Sara’s floor. I knock on her door and I hear voices—a man’s voice and Sara’s voice.
“Who is it?” she asks.
“I’m busy, honey. Just leave the paper sweetie.”
She’s busy. I deliver the remaining papers in the building, almost emptying my bag. It sure feels good to be near the end of the route. One more cul-de-sac down near the river. I don’t like it when women call me sweetie or honey. I don’t comb my hair for a reason, and the reason is that I am not “Sweetie” or “Honey” or “Sweetie Pie” or “Darlin’.” I’m going to have to bring this up with Sara and I hope I don’t hurt her feelings.
Well, I think I have delivered the last house on the route, but, of course, I haven’t. I can count. I have 72 customers this week. I had three extras at the start of the route. I sold two papers at the Friendly Tavern. I should have one paper left in my bag, but I have three. My heart sinks but not too much. I’ve been here in this spot, one block from the Spokane River at the end of my route in the dark with a paper count that doesn’t jive so many times it’s starting to make me sick in a deep, stupid way. I don’t want to come back out here tonight. I look over my indecipherable customer list and crumple the worthless piece of shit up and throw it into the snow. I can’t think of who I might have forgotten but there are at least two disappointed, if not angry, subscribers to the Spokane Chronicle. There is also the chance that even though the paper count works out, which has happened, the reason is that I delivered what would have been a left over missed paper to someone who does not even subscribe. Oh! This house looks familiar. I think I’ll deliver a paper here! They quit three weeks ago and I’m the 10% they mention who never gets the word. Tonight I am frustrated and angry with myself. My shitty delivery has been going on for three months. I pinch myself in the leg until it hurts as punishment for my stupidity. I don’t know what to do. I think I am doing my best but there are always mistakes. I slug myself in the ear as more punishment for being sloppy. I have just got to get this figured out.
I begin my walk home. My feet are freezing, my nose is cold, and I am not very happy, considering I have a new chemistry set and an oil painting set. I dread getting those two calls. As I approach the train trestle/underpass I see two figures silhouetted in the near darkness. They are fussing with something on the ground. It’s Sherman and Skip. I am now scared. I stop. Skip is holding one of the pigeons, Sherman is spraying it with gasoline from a plunger garden insecticide sprayer. Skip lights the bird and it flies into the black sky with its wings on fire.
I take an alternate route home all the way around the General Mills silos. I arrive home a half hour later than usual because of my detour. Now I am really feeling bad. My birds are being killed. Everyone has gone to bed. I have to be really quiet after Mom goes to bed and sometimes it’s just not possible to be quiet enough. I pull my canvas delivery bags over my head and gently place them near the stairs where I will retrieve them before I go up. First I want to get a bowl of cereal. I eat my flakes and I am careful to pull the handle first before closing the refrigerator door so it will make less noise. I tiptoe through the back hall to the bathroom, and as I turn the squeaky handle, Mom lets out a truly bloodcurdling scream. It is a long scream that she is still screaming as I sit on the edge of her bed grasping her shoulders. She is sitting up in her slip smelling like Ponds Cold Cream and beer. I hug her and tell her everything is okay. She is very frightened and is shaking. I have awakened her from a visitation from an incubus, she tells me. Thank God I woke her up or her soul would have been stolen for sure. She told me that it had been sitting on her chest and she was so terrified she couldn’t move or breathe, and that when she heard the doorknob squeak, she just summoned all of her strength to get the thing off her chest. She proceeded to explain the difference between an incubus and a succubus—that succubi prey on men, and incubi on women. Tonight she had a particularly malevolent beast and its claws were beginning to dig into her flesh. Her scream frightened it away. She asked me to fix her some eggs. She was hungry. I fixed her a plate of fried eggs over medium, the way she likes them. She was always asking me or Regan or Teresa to “Fix me some eggs,” “Fix me some eggs.” Every other night after a few beers it was “Fix me some eggs.” I was glad to be under my cold sheets at last, warming them up by squirming my body all over them.
I thought hard about the helplessness of seeing my bird getting burned. Why didn’t I do something to punish those guys before I turned away? I had a growing sick feeling both from the horror of the fire and my fear of the two boys. ***
Carl Wheatly is 82 years old. He lives in a two-room cabin on an acre of land in one of the remote places of my route—a place that I figured is as far as I get from my starting point down on Trent Avenue. He has tall pine trees in his yard and his yard is very dark at night, but it doesn’t give me the creeps. Maybe because Carl is such a nice old fellow. One collection night he invited me into his house and showed me several bottles into which he had placed little ships, one tiny piece at a time. He showed me his tool kit used for assembling these miniature China Clippers and schooners and yawls. He is a retired seaman who spent the last ten years of his career designing bronze ship propellers that were used on the logging steamships of Puget Sound. He showed me his books containing the mathematical formulas needed to determine the proper pitch of the propellers. It was all very interesting, especially the tiny tools he used to insert the micro ship pieces through the opening of the glass bottles and onto the dinky ship. He had one under construction and allowed me to watch as he placed tiny lifeboats next to the cabin. There was a print on his wall of a lone wolf on a wooded hillside looking down at a couple of cowboys sitting around a campfire under moonlight, and another right next to it with an Indian in place of the wolf, same trees, same moonlight. He had a wood burning stove, a big black iron monster, and he kept it glowing during the cold January minutes I spent at his place.
I liked Carl because, although he was very old, he seemed to still have a good spirit and a happy outlook on life. There was nothing sad about him at all. His little ships were beautiful and he seemed happy to be making them. I knew a couple of other men who made models but they seemed to be making models because they were defeated by life, afraid to go out into the world and engineer something.
Van Richman was a 25-year-old barber who had one or two customers a day. He rubbed my head with pinaud lotion a little too long for my liking and invited me into the back of his shop to see his assembly line where he sculpted Napoleonic-era soldiers out of clay and cast them in rubber molds. Each soldier was just over an inch high and there were hundreds of them already in uniform, fully painted in their brigade colors, and standing or riding or kneeling in position on the battlefield. The battlefield was a 4 x 8 foot sheet of plywood that had been covered with paper-mache, paint, lichens, and scale trees, to resemble Waterloo.
Van had too much oil on his hair and he was 40 or so pounds overweight. He asked me if I’d ever participated in a circle jerk. I asked him what that was and he changed the subject. As I was inspecting his battlefield, he was leaning back in his leather chair with his dick in his hand. I turned around and saw him and quickly started for the door.
“Hurry back!” he said.
My new barber, Ron “Gone” Johnson, was a very suave guy. He played piano and assembled model cars. He had a shelf two feet below the crown molding in his shop and it held 30 or 40 of his models. All were painted in a metallic color, and more than a few were candy-apple red, his favorite. After hours on Saturday evenings until 10:00 or so, Ron’s shop became the chess club. Most of the members of the chess club were junior high boys. For those of us who weren’t very astute at chess, there was usually a poker game as well. Mom and Bud taught me to play a variety of poker games, so I usually leaned toward cards rather than chess. After the games Ron would get out his Ouija board and we would sit around trying to communicate with the dead.
Ron had a life-changing experience when he was 14. He was from Chillicothe, Ohio. He lived in a two-story frame house. His bedroom was on the second floor, and late one night he woke up and just for the hell of it he pulled up his blind window, and there was a big goateed face staring at him from the outside of the window. Not entirely incredible if there had been a roof surface out the window. There wasn’t. Someone on a ladder? Ron didn’t think that was likely, given how terrified and subsequently deeply disturbed he was by the event. He figured it was the devil come to get him to stop masturbating. He said he never fooled with himself again and began taking his piano lessons very seriously. He was glad about the piano and eventually performed the background music for the senior play, which he claimed gave him the self-assurance and esteem he enjoyed ever since. We got the Ouija to move and spell out a few things, but nothing out of the ordinary. The whole game gave me the creeps. Some of the boys stayed later than 10:00 and there were rumors that Ron had favorites. I was always too tired to hang around. ***
After the stench of Christmas wore off, Mom started dating again. She entered her cowboy phase in early February. On four successive weekends she dated four guys, named, in order, Buck, Dick, Chuck, and Claude. I remember them for two reasons: each of them had his name tooled into the back of a wide leather belt, and they each brought me an aircraft model of some sort, just like the others. It’s nice to think that my mother had requirements for these guys and that she was thinking of me. I didn’t have any more room in my bedroom for the models so I put them in the basement next to Bud’s room on a greasy old tool bench. Mom’s connection to these guys, at least on a spiritual level, was their shared love of country music. She never took these guys straight to her bedroom. She made me turn off the television so she could play their favorite country songs on the hi-fi. Buck was a Hank Williams worshipper and he brought over a collection of 78s that included “Kawliga,” “Jambalaya,” “Cheatin’ Heart,” and “So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Buck actually began to cry somewhere in the middle of the “Lonesome” song and Mom told him to dry up. She softened the effect of this command by asking him if he wanted a beer, which he did, and I was asked to go get each of them “a cold one.”
I really enjoyed Hank especially because it brought back so many memories of Kansas. I enjoyed the memory of walking around Shawnee Lake with a bamboo fishing pole and peanut butter balls looking for a good spot to catch a crappie. “Jambalaya” played on the car radio on the way home and we all sang along. “Kawliga” reminded me of driving with Bud out to a minor league baseball game on a very straight stretch of highway with the moon about as big as can be and as orange as cheddar cheese. Bud called it the “Cheddar Moon” and he asked me if I wanted to drive all the way out to the cheese. We sat next to a guy smoking a strong cigar and had a very happy time together. Bud sure never acted like he had anything approaching a mental problem when he was in his “up” season. ***
Dick was 50 years old. He raised bulls in Omak, Washington. He was selling meat of some kind down at Mom’s workplace, and they hit it off. Mom could hit it off with any man alive at will. It was always her call. She’s a very beautiful woman to look at, and certainly beautiful in many places inside, but it would take a miner with x-ray vision to ever see the hidden pockets and veins of poison that will repel them all.
Dick is a Johnny Cash man. He did a little time in the brig in the Marines in Korea and likes Johnny’s slant on the underdog. We listen to a 45 rpm single on the Wurlitzer that sits unused in the corner most of the time, filled with its unpromoted, thus unknown, pop tunes from the late ‘fifties. Some really strange stuff in that collection that never saw the light of day. Dick is about 5’8,” two inches taller than Mom, and built like one of his bulls. He appears to be all muscle and his handshake is too hard. He wants me to know that a real man is dating my mother. I asked him where he got such a nice belt, and he replied that “an old drunken Indian made it for me right after the War.”
“How do you like Johnny Cash, son?” he asked. It really bothered me that he called me son. He is not my Dad. He is not an engineer.
“He’s okay, not very happy though.”
That’s real good, son. Good ear.” There he goes again. I’m finished. I excuse myself and go into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. Two minutes later Mom calls me to bring them a couple of beers. I return to the living room with the beers. “Thanks, son,” Dick says, forever editing himself from the text of my life and thoughts. I hated it when my Mom’s boyfriends overstepped their boundaries.
I’m not feeling good about the pigeons. I feel like a coward because I didn’t confront Sherman and Skip in the way Elvis would have. He would have just walked up to them and told them to stop what they were doing, and if they gave him any trouble, he would have slugged them a few times each, and maybe he would have had a song about birds or something like how much it hurts to be on fire, like Johnny Cash. Elvis would not have just stood there like I did and turn away when he could have done something. Those two guys scared the hell out of me. They were connected to larger forces. They had friends in junior high who would help them gang up on people, or who would stand around and give them encouragement as they pounded you.
Skip had a tire chain he carried around sometimes. His Dad was one of the Melmac dinnerware-eating-peas-with-a-knife-men whose boys were all tough and mean. The thing about being afraid is that I never forget it. The events add up inside like those colored plastic donuts on the toddler’s toy except the donuts are heavy and they are not brightly colored, they are the color of the grime from under the refrigerator or that frozen kidney someone left on our front porch last week.
In mid-January, Dave the Route Manager for the “Chronicle” told me that if I got more than one complaint in the following week that he was going to have to take over my route for a while and then give it to someone else. Dave started delivering my route on January 25. He had seven skips the first night and it got worse after that. He had made himself a list with nice printing and waterproof ink, but that didn’t help him. The thing that he didn’t understand right away is that having a list with house numbers is only half of the equation. There were no sidewalks, thus curbs that might have contained a number in more civilized parts of town. My route had to be learned by instinct—at least those parts of it that were comprehensible at all. You just had to get the feel of it like a steamboat pilot gets the feel of the Mississippi River. The sandbars are never going to be in the same place twice, so you’d better be able to read the surface of the water.
Dave returned my route to me late in the first week of February, but not before the biggest snowstorm of the year and a wonderful carefree week sledding and ski-bobbing and general horsing around until late at night in the winter wonderland. The best hills for sledding were not far from our house, and when Rita, Marilyn, and Carolyn came back over, we all had a great time.
Some hills are too steep to bother throwing sand on so the city leaves them covered in snow. This is the side for sledding, and when a hapless driver tries to make it up the hill, for ski-bobbing—holding onto the rear bumper and being dragged behind the slow-moving car and sliding up the hill. There is a wrecking yard not far from our sledding hill. There is a shack toward the back of the yard that is home to Teddy and Eddie, two of the three Rowsleys. Their grandfather owns the junkyard and their Dad is a trumpeter in Sammy Masuto’s polka orchestra. Teddy and Eddie were supposed to be so tough that no one ever dared go near the junkyard, but we were having so much fun that night that we couldn’t imagine how anyone would not want to share it. Marilyn and Carolyn wanted to meet Teddy and Eddie and they talked Rita and me into asking the boys if they wanted to come out and play. We got past their five dogs with no problem and knocked on the door of the shack. Teddy opened the door. The girls were giggling and very happy, and Rita ended up doing the talking.
“Hey! Can you guys come out tonight?”
“Gramps! Eddie ‘n’ me are goin’ out.”
Gramps didn’t answer but both boys joined us and they were lots of fun. They didn’t have sleds and their jackets didn’t look warm enough. They were the most daring of us all at ski-bobbing, and Eddie, the sixth grader, Rita’s age, hitched a bob all the way up the hill and a couple of hundred yards down the busy boulevard before the gravel ruined the ride. It was a big relief to me that Teddy and Eddie turned out to be friendly. The girls tended to do crazy things.
Mom’s birthday is today, February 2, Ground Hog’s Day. She has a serious case of post-holiday blues so her psychiatrist doubled her dose of amphetamines. If it weren’t for the calming effects of her pack-a-day of smokes, she would have gotten jumpy. Mom saw a psychiatrist once a week as part of her Veteran’s Hospital outpatient care. He made sure she had lots of the right pills to keep her spirits up. They didn’t seem to be working very well, but she hasn’t tried to kill herself all year. Bud is down in the basement and he is very quiet. We haven’t seen him for weeks. He went down right after Christmas with his very serious blues—blacks might be a better term. T.C. baked a Duncan Hines chocolate cake and started to pour Hershey’s chocolate syrup over it when Katy screamed for her to stop. Katy had been taking home economics at school and they had a few minutes on frosting. Mom announced that she was going out after dinner with one of her friends. He was picking her up at 8:00. We went a little light on the birthday gifts for Mom but she seemed pleased with her cards, and although disappointed to see the forest of 37 candles, she smiled and we cheered when she blew them out—after three tries.
Chuck is another cowboy, a wheat ranch foreman from the Palouse Hills. He is shorter than Katy who is 5’8,” but slightly taller than Mom. He is very muscular and has a lean, rodeo face, bent nose, chipped front tooth, and a Mike Nelson from “Seahunt” kind of look. Some of these guys might have been so cool, like the cowboys on television, but they have this shy thing going when they are standing in our living room that just says “I drive a car—I do not ride a horse, although I may own a gun, I do not carry a gun, if I ever fight it will be indeterminate, like Bud and Robbie’s, not decisive like those of Elvis or Rowdy Yates.”
Mom introduces him and he hands me a big, flat box that is a Revell model of the U.S.S. Forrestal aircraft carrier. All three sisters are standing there in the living room after being introduced, and they give me the strangest look as I receive this gift. Once more they are all forgotten in the “Let’s buy the boy off before taking his mother away” routine. They sure as hell are wondering where their gifts are. There is not even a gift for Mom and it is her birthday. I guess Chuck’s just being here is his gift. This is the second model of the Forrestal I have received, and as I look at the magnificent oil painting on the lid of the box I remember back to a weekend in Topeka when I was 6 and Mom was on leave from the hospital to be with us for a weekend. She was very, very thin and her face was gaunt, and she had the saddest look in her eyes. She picked the four of us up from St. Vincent’s in the lobby with the shiny marble floor and the statues of Mary and Jesus in their niches on either side of the huge desk. There were a couple of fat nuns in their habits telling my Mom how important it was that we be back before 5:00 because this was liver and peas night and we needed our vitamins. I had a deep sense of the lostness of my Mom. If these two mean nuns were telling her what to do with her children, she had lost control. She gave them a sad smile and took us by the hand out to her friend Loretta’s car. Loretta was a fellow patient, Mom’s best friend after Bud. She was a lesbian who had tried to kill herself by setting her family’s barn on fire up north of Topeka. Where Mom only had scars on the inside of her wrist, Loretta had scars all the way up her arms. She had very red hair and was tall and pale and beautiful and very quiet. Loretta dropped us off at a theater in downtown Topeka and we saw a movie about World War II. Mom told us a few stories about being in the WAVES, the women’s branch of the Navy, and about riveting planes up in Seattle for Boeing. The day was very gloomy and cold and I could tell my mother was very unhappy, but that did not stop me from asking her for a model of the ship we saw in the movie. Katie told me that Mom didn’t have any money, but I kept on asking. She finally bought me this Revell model of the Forrestal. Katy and Teresa thought I was a pest for being so adamant about it. It must have cost my mother’s entire allowance. When Mom dropped us off in the lobby I felt very desolate. The Catholic home was not a happy place. Topeka itself had begun to take on a sinister quality after one of the nuns told me that the hole to hell was just a mile from town, and if you stood up on the roof of the home, which was three stories tall, you could just make out the black, smoking edges. The nun reminded me that sinners were dropped straight in and if you were a mortal sinner, you didn’t stop falling until you landed in hell, and if you committed a venial sin, you stopped halfway down and this gave God a chance to think about your sins for a while. The overcooked liver and mushy, horrible canned peas we were served every Saturday night were an immediate hell. The root beer made by dropping a compressed tablet into a spun aluminum ‘glass’ was insufficient to wash this evil bolus down one’s throat. I gagged on every bite. Children were not allowed to leave the table until they had cleaned their plates of this dreck, so I spent an extra hour or two in the dining room on liver night. We slept in a big room with two rows of low steel beds, ten beds per row. The bathroom was way down the hall. Katy and Teresa were slapped around and punished a lot for minor things, like wetting the bed. Regan was still cute so she got special treatment. The basement laundry room of this hellhole was very large, and Katy spent a lot of time down there doing laundry. I had nightmares about that basement for years. The Forrestal model was incomprehensible to me. I loved the beautiful image on the box but the multitude of tiny, gray plastic parts was overwhelming. I fussed with them for a few hours, then never looked at the box of bits again, feeling guilty that I spent my Mom’s money and thinking I should have listened to Katy when she said that Mom could not afford the model.
Thanks for the memories Chuck. Mom asked him to turn around and show us his tooled leather belt with the turquoise scattered around it like little marbles. He was obviously embarrassed but Mom liked to treat people like trained seals. Why a grown man wanted to see his name on his belt was beyond my comprehension. It reminded me of the name tags they put on our shirts before camp at the Hutton Settlement. It also reminded me of the Mad magazine joke where the camp counselor turns back a camper’s t-shirt and calls him Hanes for the rest of the summer.
These cowboys never knew what hit them when they met my mother. She has the big, wild outdoors angle covered from her years growing up in rough logging camps. She can always identify with their rough childhoods, their abusive or distant parents. Their struggles are her struggles. She knows every angle of Depression-era poverty, every pinched penny, every humiliation, every missed meal, every ratty piece of clothing. She was right there with them. Her father Bob was the leanest and meanest cowboy/logger alive. Bob was so passionate and angry he would exhaust two or three saw partners a day and refused to stop sawing until his ten hours a day was up. He was handed his lunch, a sandwich and held it in one hand as he sawed with his other hand. The money he earned sawing during lunchtime was his beer money, guilt free. Mom always knew where these men were coming from. She sympathized until they were hooked and then she would insert a little needle or two in a sensitive spot, and she knew them all, to hasten the inevitable exit. Mom was a voracious reader. She read a book every night or two her entire life since grade school. She read over one thousand words a minute with total comprehension. She had exhausted all of the classics of western literature before she graduated from high school, she devoured Shakespeare in college and was into trash of all sorts when we lived on Perry. She could converse with anyone on any subject at least for a few minutes and on topics such as the holocaust or the plight of the American Indians for hours. The intellectual cowboys found her particularly attractive. For a man to remain in orbit around Mom for more than a few hours he had to be malleable. Chuck, for all of his physical strength and outward toughness was pure putty.
Chuck and Mom left Spokane for Holden, Washington on birthday night and didn’t return for three days. Katy heard the whole story in a drunken confession out at Loon Lake that spring when she also learned too much about other things.
Grandmother Gilliland died during their drive back to Holden just before Christmas. Mom found out but didn’t tell any of us. There certainly wasn’t a funeral or even a memorial service for this sad old woman with the cigarette voice. She was always nice to me. Grandad was in his little house alone when Mom and Chuck climbed up the flight of eighteen wooden steps. All of these houses were on stilts because of the immensely deep snow, the deepest in the world in an inhabited area. They arrived at the end of Lake Chelan after a boat ride of several hours on the “Lady of the Lake” ferry. They then boarded a bus with their one small suitcase and their rifle in its leather case. It was Chuck’s deer rifle, a thirty ought six, no scope. Although it wasn’t deer season, it was not strange in those days to carry a cased rifle, just another personal belonging. The bus ride from the remotest end of this large lake up to the little copper mining village in the woods, Holden, took over an hour. It was a very remote little village. It was well after dark when Mom and Chuck arrived. They had been drinking on the boat as well as on the bus. Mom could hold her liquor very well when she wanted to. She was quite coherent when her father opened the door which was when they were only halfway up the long flight of wooden stairs. The little house vibrated when people walked up the stairs.
“What the hell?” Bob said as he peered into the darkness and could just make out the features of Molly.
“Hi Daddy, this is Chuck, we’ve come to shoot you.” She said this clearly with no trace of humor, although she was kidding about shooting him. Bob was always drunk by this time of night, 8:00 p.m. Bob was not obviously affected by only twelve bottles of beer. Bob is speechless.
“Chuck and I were just passing through and thought we would stop in and shoot your balls off.” She said, as they reached the top of the stairs and stamped snow off of their shoes and cold feet on the unpainted fir planks of the porch. There were very long icicles hanging all around the eave. Chuck broke two of them off as he stepped back a bit to shake Bob’s hand.
“Hello Bob.” He said “I’m Chuck Smith, pleased to meet you.” Chuck was cheerful and gentlemanly and shaking his head in wonder at the words coming out of Molly’s mouth. He could not believe it, therefore had nothing to add to his greeting that would have suggested an apology.
“Let’s go inside, can we Daddy? I’m freezing. Are you cold Chuck honey? I know you’re cold, just look at you! You’re turning blue. Let’s go inside.” Chuck had never seen icicles four feet long and three inches in diameter before and he snapped off a few more from the low eave and watched them disappear point first into the deep snow. He followed Molly into the dim, yellow light of her father’s living room. The room smelled like beer, Copenhagen snuff, comforting rather than offensive. There was a residual smell of burned bacon and burned toast, Bob’s dinner. Grandad Bob was animal enough to know a threat and he was frightened now. He sat in his ratty, deep green velour easy chair and took a swig of his Oly.
“Sit down, honey.” Molly said to Chuck. He obeyed. Molly sat next to Chuck and sighed as she unzipped the rifle and shouldered it. She aimed it at her father and dry fired it. Bob flinched mightily and jerked down into his chair. When there was no gunshot he quickly sat back up and said:
“You know it ain’t good for those guns to dry fire ‘em like that. What do you want here Illa Mae?” Molly’s given name.
“You hurt me and I want you to know that you hurt me. You destroyed me and you have never apologized for anything you have ever done to me and you’re going to apologize now. You’re going to apologize Daddy. Silver haired Daddy o’ mine.” She cooed. Molly loved Gene Autry.
“Hmmmmmm” Bob said very quietly as he looked around the room and took a long drink of beer.
Over the course of the past month, Molly has been filling Chuck with a thousand details of her nightmare childhood. Chuck knows the whole story and the whole trail of abuse, humiliation, abandonment and neglect. He was a little neglected as well so he can relate and he’s not very happy with the old man. Men treat animals better than Bob Gilliland treated his daughter. Chuck was almost steamed and still amazed at the bulk of the icicles. The icicles were veined and ropy in surface texture though fully transparent. He imagined a creature from Saturn pumping away at its mate with a four foot long icy penis. He imagined it breaking off inside and festering into a frozen baby plopping out on the frozen methane.
“Snap out of it Chuck!” Molly commanded in an effort to get her sleepy companion to pay attention to the proceedings.
“You ain’t even my girl.” Said Bob in a quiet matter of fact voice.
“Don’t shit me Daddy”
“No, you ain’t my child, ain’t my daughter. Your Mom sure as hell ain’t black Irish. I’m Irish but I ain’t black Irish. Your Mom has brown eyes. I’ve got brown eyes. Hell there ain’t any black hair in our family for as far back as I know and you sure as hell are a lot smarter ‘n your sisters. Figure it out. You were my little darlin’. Your Mom sure as hell waddn’t gonna say anything. I know your Daddy and I whupped him on many a Friday night. He’d just keep a comin, didn’t matter how whupped he got. He was a fighter for sure. I never lost a fight to a cat skinner in 25 years in the woods and fightin’ was my favorite pastime. Where do you think your blue eyes came from? Look at your cheekbones--I threw many a punch into those cheekbones of Jess O’Malley. You’re O’Malley’s kid, sure as hell. I told him to stay the hell away from your Mom or I’d kill him.” Bob was getting warmed up. He was talking to save his life.
“Daddy, I want you to get down on your knees.” Molly placed a few rounds in the clip and jammed it into the rifle.
“Get down now Daddy, right here. Get down and crawl over to the stove.”
“Put that thing away Illa Mae. I ain’t gonna do any such thing.”
Molly fired a shot. It kicked her back against the sofa and caused Buck to jump off the couch. The bullet grazed the old man’s shoulder and he complied with Molly’s request.
“Get over there and unbuckle his pants Chuck honey and pull ‘em down around his knees.”
Chuck looked at her in disbelief and said in a whiny, inquisitive tone: “Molly!”
“He’s bleeding, honey!”
“I can see that. Get over there!” she commanded. He complied. ***
Holden, Washington is lost in the fir trees in the deep snow. The stream is dark and fast. There are eighty families. At night the wind blows through the very tall trees and they sway. The smell is cold and very clean with a touch of woodsmoke. It is a village for Christmas card paintings or for smarmy over delineated gloppy amateur images by “painters of light.” Holden was so beautiful it begged to be glorified by cheap art. The most beautiful places, places that are in the midst of natural splendor spawn the most horrible human behavior and horrible things happened in Bob Gilliland’s house over the course of that weekend. With the help of her amphetamines, Molly had the endurance to deliver her revenge. It was served cold and it was served deep. Chuck broke off another icicle at dawn as the long cold shadows in the snow turned from deep purple to ultramarine. They threw the shit stained rifle into the snow on the way down the long flight of stairs to the narrow snow channel that led back to the bus stop. They slept on the Lady of the Lake and arrived back in Spokane Monday evening.
My mother and father were angry with each other almost every day I can remember them together. This was hundreds of days not thousands because of my mother’s hospitalizations and my father’s international travels. By the time we lived in the Perry Flats he had worked in Australia for two years surveying a transcontinental railroad and building a SEATO munitions plant. He worked in the Belgian Congo for a year and in Peru for many months. He traveled through London and Paris and had a beautiful leather side bag and a very sophisticated trenchcoat. He had a girlfriend in Paris and perhaps one or two in Australia. The arguments between Mother and Father always escalated into shouting. Very loud, very violent shouting. Mother would invariably attack Dad and slug him, scratch him and on one occasion while I was standing right beside him, she tried to hit his face with the pointed end of a large butcher knife. He still had his fighter’s reflexes and grabbed her wrist stopping the point just inches from his eye. Some of my earliest memories as a three and four year old are of being in dark bedrooms tugging on my Dad’s pant leg to get him to stop the shouting and pushing. He once had to deliver a tap to Mom’s jaw to get her to calm down. They fought like cats and dogs or worse yet, like people. While under the influence of mega doses of amphetamines in these early fifties Mom had surges of intense physical strength and speed and intensity and she brought it all into play in their darkened bedroom. A bedroom with the shades drawn in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Dad was directing a two hundred 200-man crew out at the Hanford atomic works during these years. He was 34. Mom would fight him during the weekday evenings as well as during the day on Saturday and Sunday. One afternoon she scratched his face and drew three long gashes down his right cheek. He bled a lot and mentioned years later that it was hard to explain such a wound to the men at work. His supervisors were beginning to notice that he had some domestic issues. During our time in Richland we had a neighbor, a friend of my mother’s. She was a Korean lady who had married an American soldier. They lived in a trailer a few blocks away. One afternoon she knocked on our door and I answered. She had a fork stuck in her forehead. It was bleeding a little. She asked me to get my Mom and they talked for a while at our kitchen table before a car came to take her to the hospital. I must have soaked up a lot of violent tendencies because over the next three years I began to get angry more often and I would yell and throw dishes and silverware against the wall. One night in Kansas after leaving St. Vincent’s home and living with my sisters and mother in a house, I attacked our baby sitter, the lovely Loretta. She tried to get me to go to bed and I scratched her arms quite badly. They were bleeding a lot. I got to stay up for an extra hour but my mother began her crackdown on my violent behavior. I was not to ever throw anything or hit anyone ever again. Never, ever again. No hitting, no screaming, no scratching. No violent behavior allowed. Do as I say--not as I do. In genteel circumstances this may be a viable policy. Perry Flats were lacking even a trace of gentility. I needed some actualized violence, some capacity for anger but I was numb. The dark plastic donut rings of humiliation and cowardice kept piling up.
There are countless things about life on earth to get angry about but anger is such an unpleasant feature in a person. A single display of anger is enough to brand a person as a hard case or a troublemaker or a problem child, someone with an anger management problem. My mother and father displayed ferocious, hateful, violent anger toward each other a thousand times in the presence of their four young children. It seemed normal. The power of anger can be measured by multiplying it by the status of the source. If a King wrinkles an eyebrow--heads may roll. If a man who eats peas with a knife rants all night his boys may still do poorly in school and bring shame to their family. When a person feels powerless their anger becomes large and if they feel very very small and helpless they begin to hit. Anger can change things from bad to better sometimes it changes things from ok to much much worse. It is not easy to predict whether anger will result in something positive or negative. It is a tool that is used to introduce children to the rigors of their culture. It keeps poor people poor and rich people rich. Anger and embarrassment and humiliation and shyness are the tools we use to force each other into our roles as served or servant. There is a deep soup that we live in and the chemistry at the bottom is quite different from the chemistry at the top. If a child has a friendly, open heart and an accepting nature while swimming in some of the toxic soup at the bottom he will absorb some destructive habits, reactions and behavior patterns that will serve him poorly in his rise into civilized educated society. Those same qualities will ensure almost certain success in a genteel, loving learning environment. If you take a child from a toxic milieu in which he has had to build defenses and resist much of that which surrounds him and place him in a school where the only way to excel is to have all learning systems on full, wide open absorption, he will seem like a slow learner. It takes time to learn to trust the new flow of information. Is algebra more important knowledge than the proper method of circling an opponent in a fistfight? ***
Jon Gnagy was my savior as much as Jesus has been the savior for so many. Jon Gnagy taught me the wonders and the magic of drawing and drawing has been the skill I used to leverage myself through society. If you draw like an angel and keep your mouth under control you are welcome anywhere. Jon gave me the key to my future on Saturday morning when he showed me how to take an empty piece of paper and with the skillful arrangement of a few lines and some charcoal dust create an image from life that was life itself. Drawings are alive. They are real and they deserve one’s best efforts. ***
Regan was little and quiet and she was always reading just like her mother. Regan was also very tough and if I ever wanted to watch a television program that conflicted with her TV plans, there was a fight. She had absorbed a lot of fighting method from Mother and Dad just as we all had. It had its uses. Regan is in the fourth grade. She has curly blonde hair and is her teacher’s little pet. Reggie Jefferson, the little black boy and his prey Timmy Phillips are Regan’s classmates in Miss Averill’s class at McKinley. Regan has a crush on little skinny Timmy but she is very quiet about it. How do I know? I saw them kissing at recess one afternoon. Miss Averill showers attention on Regan. She picks her up at our house on Saturday mornings and takes her places. She bought her a dress on one of these Saturday outings and it made my mother angry. She didn’t want anyone to think our family was a charity case. She worked too hard down at the food distribution warehouse for anyone to think that. She made Regan take the dress back and she had a few words with Miss Averill who was allowed to keep seeing Regan and even kept her overnight from time to time. Regan had nice stories of nights at Miss Averill’s. She said Miss Averill lived in a big house with wall-to-wall carpet. When she slept over at her house, she got to sleep in the big bed and they had lots of fun. Miss Averill took Regan to movies and to the park and during the Christmas vacation Regan was invited to spend a weekend at Miss Averill’s cabin up at Loon Lake. The two of them had some wonderful times together. As our mother was descending into her amphetamine hell of unpredictable behavior and general remoteness, it was nice that Regan had an adult friend who cared for her a great deal.
Teresa was the family scholar and the budding entertainer. She could write an “A” paper on atomic power and put on her Navy costume and perform a great dance to a show tune. She also liked to draw and paint and she would watch Jon with me on Saturday mornings although she never quite got the hang of shade and shadow. Teresa was very outgoing and always seemed to be in fine spirits. She had a gap tooth smile just like my Dad and it was thought from time to time that she might be Dad’s favorite due to her excellence at mathematics and science which were Dad’s religion. He studied his college math books like some people study the Bible. Teresa would do just about anything to please him and she seemed to do those things so naturally. Teresa and Regan lived in a different world than I did. They were harassed from time to time by neighborhood boys but they didn’t appear to be under a relentless cloud of threats. Perhaps Perry Flats were the most natural environment a child could grow up in. It was Darwinian in its simplicity. A zebra or a water buffalo or a large lizard has to live with constant danger. They may be attacked and killed and eaten any time of the day or night. They lived with sharp senses and wits or they were killed. There are no days off for the creatures of the jungle or the plains of Kenya. Maybe there are valuable lessons being taught in this neighborhood. In this neighborhood if you didn’t seize the day, it seized you. ***
Spokane is a beautiful city in the springtime. The snow melts. The sky is blue with big white clouds. The lilacs bloom. The river is fast and full. The smell of grass and earth fill me with a connection to my vegetable garden at the Hutton Settlement and to the hills east of the city. Everything seems new and clean and fresh and happy. I’m back on my route. The days are getting longer. It is still daylight now when I finish and there is time to hop trains with Saylor and have a smoke once in awhile. My bank account is growing after spending everything on Christmas presents and I’m doing fine in school according to Mr. Irons who has called my mother in for their second consultation in a month. She tells me that I’m one of the top ten students in Mr. Iron’s fifth grade class and he even mentions that my drawing ability has added strength to my group projects and reports. Baseball season is starting soon and some of my friends have asked me if I want to go over to the Spokane Indians (our AAA pro team) ballpark on Saturday to try to talk to some of the players: Frank Howard and Willie Davis in particular.
Bud is showing signs of growing out of his winter slump. He has offered to change the oil in the Studebaker and he eats a Sunday dinner with us. He invites Ray Higley to play chess with him and is in improving spirits. The only real dark note is that Bughie got caught burying a car in the snow and was sentenced to a couple of years in the state prison. There was some debate over whether he should go to a military prison but he was dishonorably discharged and turned over to the Washington authorities. While in prison he was the victim of a radiation experiment sponsored by the University of Washington, The Hanford Atomic works and the Battelle Institute. His balls got burned off from exposure to a dose of radiation that was ten thousand times as strong as an x-ray. He wrote Katy a few pretty sad letters from the big house. This news put a whole new slant on Teresa’s big Disney picture book Our Friend the Atom. Our friend the atom bakes our nuts off with the help of an institution of higher learning.
My proudest purchase all year made with money I earned from my paper route was my first baseman’s mitt. I don’t really know why I got a first baseman’s mitt other than that it was the largest and nicest of the mitts. I didn’t care if I got a lock on the position of first base in our vacant lot games, I just liked the feel and smell of this glove and it smelled very good. It was high quality leather and printed right on the back were the words “Pro-Model.” While I was at the sporting goods store I also bought a pair of large, black very pliable rubber swim fins. Mike Nelson had a pair and they helped him out quite a lot on “Seahunt.” It is spring for Dobie Gillis too. He’s having problems with the beautiful Thalia Menninger who is interesting to me for several reasons. First of all her last name is the name of a hospital in Topeka near the V.A. attended by Mother and Bud where she would go for special treatments, the Menninger Clinic. She met Dr. Carl and made up a song with Bud “Dr. Carl will lead us all to Glory.” They met Judy Garland there and had some group therapy with her. They said Judy was very sad. Thalia is indeed beautiful. She has the prettiest mouth and soft, nice eyes. She has a pretty voice and she is very smart and considerate of her family. She dumps Dobie for Chatsworth Osborne Junior because his family has more money than Dobie’s family and Thalia must care for several ailing family members among whom is a mother with a kidney condition. I wonder what’s worse: Thalia’s mother’s kidney condition or my mother’s mental condition. We both have mothers with health problems. I think it’s nice that she cares for her family but I feel sorry for Dobie. His father’s grocery store looks a lot like the Nevin’s Grocery just across the street from us next to the farmer’s market. I wonder if Dobie’s Dad has a backroom like Mr. Nevins where he plasters the walls with nudie pictures. Larry White had me stand up on tiptoes to peer through the dusty alley window back behind Nevin’s where I saw my first ever photos of women’s naked breasts. Larry was always doing something risky. He was usually on the edge of trouble. He had a deep curiosity for boundaries. He was still collecting for me at Lupo’s house but now with the longer days I was about ready to remove those duties and pocket the dollars.
Dobie was happy week in and week out. His disappointment over Thalia was always short lived. He had a remarkable ability to talk to girls. This was very impressive. I never talked to any girls other than my sisters unless they spoke to me first. The only girls who did that were Rita, Marilyn and Carolyn. Carolyn was the only one of these three who spoke to me on school premises, usually at recess. Most of the kids at McKinley had been going there since first grade. Carolyn and I were both new although the new had worn off long ago, probably about two weeks after school started in September. Carolyn’s parents were both music professors at Gonzaga. They both taught piano at he house. She asked me over one day after school to play a couple of songs for me. I had never been over to a girl’s house unless you count Sara’s apartment and that counts a lot. Carolyn introduced me to her sister who looked up from making out with her boyfriend on their sofa then returned to a full lip lock. They were in seventh grade. Carolyn played a couple of songs for me. She had a very pretty voice and a big bunch of curly hair that just stormed around her shoulders. She asked me if I wanted to learn a song then motioned for met to sit next to her on the piano bench. My heart started beating very fast and when she took my hands and placed them on the home keys, I felt a very loving feeling for her. I didn’t have anything to say after the lesson but thank you. She asked me if I wanted some water and I said no. All of the girls at my school were very nice to me and some of the guys were very friendly but lots of the guys were just trouble. I felt like I had to work out my problems with the guys before I could have a girlfriend. ***
It is Saturday late morning. All of the great television shows are over and it’s time to go outside and play. I make a couple of calls and today a few of the guys and me are going over to the baseball stadium. There is an afternoon game and one of our guys thinks we might get a chance to meet a player or at least watch the team work out. When we arrive at the park, a maintenance guy tells us the game is tomorrow. We ask him if we can play catch out on the field and he says okay as long as we stay between the first base line and the fence. It is a very big thrill to be inside the park where all of the great games are played. We sit in the dugout and walk over to the bat rack and begin swinging the huge bats around. The largest are the Hillrich Bradsby No. 36 bats. They are monstrous and we have to choke way up on them. This visit to the ballpark gets our ballplaying season off to an inspired start. We decide to round up some more guys and head over to a lot not far from Saylor’s house for a game. Not enough guys show up so, after playing catch and hitting a few fly balls, we go our separate ways. The weather is cool and sunny. It is a beautiful day in Spokane. I can’t wait to play ball. I just know I’m going to make lots of contact this year. I know I can hit the ball and with my new glove, everything is going to be great! Saylor and me walk along the tracks back to Trent Street where we stop in the Army Navy surplus store to shop for a few minutes. Saylor doesn’t have any money but I buy a white U.S. Navy sailor’s hat with the all around turned up brim and put it on my head at a cocky angle, after all my Dad did win the bronze star.
When Saylor and I got to my house we were getting hungry. I could see my Mom on the front steps in her turquoise blue pedal pushers smoking and reading a book. She looked very studious with her horn-rimmed glasses. Her long black ponytail made her look 18. She appeared to be happy but not for long. She saw us coming and got up and walked down the steps toward me and with a serious scowl said in a loud, angry voice:
“Take that hat off right now!”
“Why?” I asked, shocked and confused.
“Just take it off, NOW!”
As I was removing the sailor’s hat from my head she grabbed it out of my hands.
“I don’t want you to have this.”
“But I just bought it! With my paper route money! It’s my hat!”
“I don’t ever want to see you wear this hat again!” she said with anger turning to hurt. I felt like I had committed a major crime. She hasn’t been this angry with me since the toaster.
“You remind me of someone I’m trying to forget when you wear that hat. You look just like him with it cocked over your eyebrow.”
“Who do I remind you of?” I would have said Mom but that was forbidden and ‘Mother’ sounded awkward. I didn’t know what to call her so I just left the reference off my sentences. They seemed a little cold and brief without the “Mom.” Mom had an interesting set of priorities for me. She never once all year or any year asked me how I was doing in school. She didn’t mind that I went out alone late at night and had contact with near strangers and she never asked what I did on the weekends. In a way it was a lovely independence but the things she did care about were totally unpredictable, mercurial, and always intensely important. It was absolutely vital that I never again wear a sailor hat. It reminded her of her lost lover and their lost baby and brought on oceans of sorrow and guilt. To me it was just a cool hat on a beautiful spring afternoon with one of my best friends. Later that night she apologized for yelling at me in front of my friend then asked me to fix her some eggs. I reminded her that it was Saturday and she told me to never, ever be a smart ass. “There is simply nothing lower than a smart ass.”
Every Sunday Mom cooked a big pot of something for Sunday dinner, chili or spaghetti and meatballs. Sometimes it was a big, juicy roast with lots of potatoes and carrots. She was a fine cook when she wanted to make an effort which was once a week. After dinner we all retired to the living room where, for the first time since we moved to Perry Flats seven months ago, we were all in one room together, including Bud and Mitzi and Punky. Bud’s cats remained in his basement room where they were happiest. They were afraid to go out of Bud’s room. We didn’t have a lot to say to each other. Katy mentioned that she had gotten a small role in the school play which made her very happy and gave her a feeling of rising from the lower rungs of the high school social order into a happier place. She was great at making new friends and a very gregarious young woman she just didn’t know too much about the finer points of social slicing and dicing and separating that kids learn when they share the same schools for many years. Teresa was on the honor roll and told us about a very large colored chalk mural she was working on that featured an 8-foot-high image of Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” standing in front of an English landscape designed by Capability Brown. She said the sunset was going to be copied from a Claude Lorrain painting and that all together they would be in one of the scenes for her school play. Regan petted the dogs and Bud told us about his new job working on a bauxite separator out at the Alcoa plant. He mentioned that he would be working six days a week, ten hours a day. Mom asked if anyone wanted to play poker and Katy and Teresa departed and Regan, Mom, Bud and myself played twenty one for about an hour then switched to five card stud. Mom taught Regan and I to shoot craps and Bud looked on giving us the nicknames of the dice rolls:
“Eighter from Decatur, seven come eleven, ol’ snake eyes.”
We shot craps for half an hour then Mom got up and changed into her robe. The living room was thick with cigarette smoke from Mom and Bud and Katy. I was out on the front porch watching the dogs play in the front yard with some neighbor dogs when a big, sleek boxer came into our yard from the black people’s blocks that started three streets from our house. My friends did not walk down there without getting popped in the side of the head by a black kid at some point. It was a sure thing. If they saw us, then we got hit. Sometimes they would run all the way up to the intersection where their street meets Perry, our street and pop us when we were on the way to Liberty Park, just a few blocks away. This dog was their dog and it was trying to fuck our dog Mitzi. Mom stood at the front door and said:
“Not again.” Exasperated.
Ever since the snow melt there were male dogs in our front yard. They usually took a shit in the yard after sniffing around for ten minutes or so. Since it was my job to clean the yard and cut the grass, I didn’t like the strange dogs around. Cleaning up after our two dogs was enough trouble. Mitzi was in heat. Mom was getting drunk. Mom returned indoors for Mitzi’s leash. She was taking Mitzi for a walk around the neighborhood to collect male dogs. She made five trips in all that night and when she was finished we had fifteen male dogs in our basement yapping, crying, yelping, shitting, peeing and carrying on. After Mom’s last trip with Mitzi trailing dogs into our basement Mom called the dog pound and had them come out and take all of the dogs away, which they did.
“That ought to teach them!” Mom said as she sat in her easy chair.
“Jimmy! Get me a beer!” she commanded, very proud of herself. “That ought to teach those bastards!”
Mom had changed into her robe and she was getting tanked. She was going to read for an hour or so then if we were still up, she would regale us with some observations. Teresa and I hung around and listened to Mom’s theories of the sexes.
“Men are either brave or cowards, the brave ones will break your heart and it is a woman’s duty to break the hearts of wimps and cowards. Your father is a coward. He may be a war hero but he is no hero to me. I asked him to send back a plate of undercooked, bloody chicken in a little restaurant in Seattle. It was his graduation dinner. My goddam chicken was raw and I asked him to notify our waiter and have it cooked properly. He told me not to make a fuss in public. “You’re embarrassing me,” he said. So I sat there and picked at my bloody chicken wondering how our marriage was going to last. Now Chuck, he’s a brave man. He does just what I ask. In his own quiet way, Chuck is a brave man. He may not be a hero but he shows up for work every day and he pays his bills and he’s a gentleman. He’s silent and strong. I’m going to tell you one thing Jimmy about women. Don’t ever ask a woman where she wants to go on a date. Never. It’s your job as a man to have a plan. You make plans in advance. It’s not the woman’s job to sit around and decide what the hell you’re going to do on a date. She looked me right in the eye and said:
“Jimmy, you’re a painter,” Mom said. “Sex is red paint. It is like a tube of red paint. Red is a beautiful color. Red paint squeezed out of a tube is a beautiful sight. All by itself it is beautiful. There is nothing not to like about red paint, straight from the tube but the magic begins when an artist takes that red paint and uses his magic or her magic to transform that beautiful pigment into a message from the soul. Red pigment in the hands of Matisse or Manet or Vermeer becomes a path to the soul. Red paint in the hands of an unfeeling amateur will create a mess that will make you vomit. Red is a mirror. It will tell you who you are and remember, red, like God, is good.”
“Let me tell you one thing about art. It’s the one fight you’ll fight where you get to choose your opponent, set the terms of the battle and select the arena of conflict so you better kick art’s ass. Get me another beer, honey.”
“Men are like dogs, male dogs that is. They only ever want one thing, sex. Women are like female dogs.” Mom said, exhaling a long drag of smoke. “They only want one thing, sex, and don’t forget it. Women are no different than men. It would take five men to satisfy a woman every day. That’s why women are unsatisfied. African tribesmen cut the clitorises off their young wives to settle them down. American men have their women’s entire reproductive system sliced out. The bastards. They butchered me!” Mom said, beginning to slur her words very slightly. Mom only hated two things in the world more than my father: priests and doctors.
“Jimmy, honey, my son. You are my son. Stand up and let me take a look at you. You are steel true and blade straight. The day you were born was the happiest day of my life.” Mom was getting a little misty in the words of Maynard G. Krebs, Dobie’s good buddy. I was getting self- conscious and wondering what Teresa thought of the happiest day remark. It seemed as if my sisters were always being reminded by both my mother and father of their second-class status. Mom would complain bitterly about her low pay for a job she was doing at work, a job that paid the men doing it
twice as much. Was she not raising a family by herself? Then she would say something like the happiest day of her life with Teresa sitting right there at her feet. Mom was the biggest shit slinger in the world and her motto was: Don’t ever let anyone shit on you. It seemed to me that she shit on the girls quite a bit. She pretty much left me alone as long as I didn’t wake her up and if I rubbed her feet and scratched her back and cooked her eggs and pretty much stepped and fetched for her at all times.
“Jimmy, get me my book.”
I handed her her book of the evening, Tales From the Twilight Zone, by Rod Serling. She just finished Day of the Triffids and had a Ray Bradbury tome on the back burner waiting to be devoured. Before we left for the evening she reminded us to never forget the holocaust and to remember little Anne Frank and to stick up for the little guy, the helpless, the disadvantaged. The rich bastards will take care of themselves, the pigs, the rich bitches. I almost forgot, she also hates rich people wherever they may be. She loves American Indians and Jews and, of course, all of the Irish. I was ready for bed. I excused myself, kissed my mother on the cheek and got a smell of the beer and cigarettes on her breath.
“I need a foot rub before you go, pretty please.” Mom looked at me and raised her eyebrows in one of the few submissive gestures she knew. I sat back down at her feet and rubbed away as she purred and closed her eyes.
“You’re getting such strong hands.” she cooed. “OK, now go up to bed.”
Thanks to Ron “gone” my barber I never looked at my window blind at night without thinking of his big, scary face in the window experience. I could have done without that story. I tried moving my bed so that I couldn’t see the window at all but that was worse because then I couldn’t keep an eye on it and you never can tell what’s happening when you’re not looking. Some things people should just keep to themselves. Once I started thinking about spooky things I would start combing through some of the more powerful nightmares of my childhood, when I was four and five. I had one that involved Crusader Rabbit. I was crouched in the corner of a concrete basement that was completely open to the sky. I was totally alone and very frightened to be alone. I was huddled up trying to keep warm wondering where everyone was. It was the middle of the night and the sky was black, all of a sudden a huge black steam locomotive came chugging toward me. It rolled past just at the edge of the basement wall. Crusader Rabbit was the conductor and he poked his head out the window and stared at me without saying hello. He had a malevolent grin on his face and it scared me awake.
Mom didn’t go out on Sunday nights as a rule but she had an early date this evening. I answered the door. It was Mr. Irons. He was holding a television set.
“Hello Blake (he called me Blake instead of Jim so he could call the other Jim in the class, Jim Caldwell, Jim) this is for you!” He was way too enthusiastic. Far more enthusiastic than he ever was in class toward me. I was flabbergasted to see him at my door. The front door to my house. I didn’t want him to come inside but the television set was obviously getting heavy. We already had a television set. Just then Mom arrives at the front door all dolled up and she invites him in. I wish she had given me some sort of warning so I could have disappeared. This was way over the top. This was a big territorial issue. I really thought my home was a refuge from school and the terrors of the street. Irons put the TV down. I thanked him in a very offhand, unenthusiastic way. I could tell that this was one very strange Moment for him too but Mom was very beautiful and certainly single. You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. How could I sit in class and look up at him and listen to him holding forth on the life in a little fishing community on the coast of Maine, or long division or oil production or diagramming sentences.
Mom returned from her date before I went to bed. They saw “Ben Hur.” She felt compelled to tell me how it went, how they just sat there for the first hour fidgeting. Then he touched her fingers with his “clammy” skin then an hour later after his endless fumbling around with her arm, he leaned over and kissed her.
“That was it for me,” she said, in her most disgusted tone of voice. “That man has bad breath.” I could have told her that but she had to find out for herself. Mr. Irons had been flayed by Mom. She said she would never go out with him again. I was glad to hear that. Mr. Irons now officially gave me the creeps. ***
The weather in Spokane in the springtime is very dramatic at times and beautiful. There were great thunderstorms that frightened the dogs but the sky always looked beautiful the next day and the air smelled very nice. The problem with spring was that it seemed to bring on an increase in the fighting. If it was never safe to walk down the streets in autumn or winter it was downright treacherous in springtime. The black boys would be sitting on their front porch shooting the breeze with each other, always on the lookout for a victim. The junior high boys were roving around in groups of two or three. They were not too scary because they left little guys like me alone for the most part. It was primarily sixth graders that one had to be especially careful with. If I ever saw boys walking toward me I automatically crossed to the other side of the street. This I learned after a couple of confrontations where I was simply slugged in the ear or popped in the mouth, nothing serious but frightening nonetheless. One’s very presence was serious provocation on these streets. Little Tim Phillips finally got fed up with the bullying of Reggie Jefferson. He told his mother about it and she had a meeting with our principal, Mr. Gordon. Mr. Gordon had a serious talk with little Reggie and that night at Timmy’s bus stop Reggie almost killed him. Timmy was beaten senseless by Reggie who unleashed all his power, anger, and killer instinct on poor Timmy. Timmy was very bloody and terrified and permanently damaged, at least psychologically. Reggie was taken out of school, but Timmy returned just beat to shit. He had scabs on his face for weeks and I never saw him smile again that year. He was like a zombie. I was surprised that a fourth grader could cause such mayhem but the black boys were on a different wavelength when it came to violence. Larry White surprised me one afternoon when we were walking home from a sandlot baseball game on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We walked past two high school sweethearts sitting on a blanket holding hands. Larry, very much to my surprise and clear out of nowhere asked this kid who must be at least four or five years older and definitely bigger, if he wants a fight, just right there in front of the girlfriend. I was shocked. I didn’t think Larry was that rotten or one of the mean kids. The young man on the blanket just looked up and stared, didn’t say a thing.
“You heard me chump.” Larry said. “Wipe that shit eating grin off your face.” Larry said in his most authoritative eleven-year-old tone of voice. Larry had older brothers so I figured they must have taught him some of this tough talk. I didn’t even think he knew any tough talk. The kid finally got up and stood eight or ten inches taller than Larry. He slugged Larry in the side of the head and sent him sprawling onto his back.
“Beat it, you miserable little lawn jockey!” said the big kid.
I walked away as fast as I could. Larry caught up and started talking real fast about how he was going to bring his brothers down and really “fuck that guy up.” That was not hard to believe. I didn’t hang out with Larry after that. I hated that senseless harassment. For a park, Liberty Park wasn’t the safest place. ***
One evening after the route I stopped by Kenny McPherson’s house to look at a gas powered, balsa wood airplane that he built. His father helped a lot. It was a beautiful model. We took it over to the park and fussed around with it. We were not able to get the engine started. The dry cell battery was low or maybe we flooded the engine. Kenny went home with his beautiful plane and I walked home through the park. It was dusk and the park was a bit scary. As I was walking near a ravine filled with trees I began to hear screaming. I started walking faster and my heart started racing. The screams got longer. I could tell they were a boy or a young man. I looked down in the ravine into the dark trees but I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t want to see anything. Some boy, probably a high school boy was being beaten up. I just swallowed hard and kept walking. Once again something was getting very seriously hurt and I didn’t do anything about it. I never told anyone about that horrible sound of a boy having his life ruined by a gang of bullies, skids, tough guys. Another thick, gray ring for that post in my heart. I never really liked the park much after those two events. I had to walk past the black people street to get there from my house and even accompanied by my fearless friend Kenny Humphrey who slugged back when struck, it seemed too risky, especially now with the memory of those horrible screams. The park became a malevolent place. ***
It was strange to see Mr. Irons in class Monday morning. It was strange all day. He was in another foul mood. He caught Biff with chewing gum in the cloakroom again. This time Biff was sticking firecrackers to the inside of the lower hem of the jackets of his “favorites” the boys he felt got special treatment by Mr. Irons or boys he wanted his older brother to beat up for him. Biff was very shy and very mean. Mr. Irons took away the firecrackers, but he didn’t check all of the jackets, a couple of sixth grade girls were fighting in the hallway just outside his classroom and he was distracted from his Biff encounter. Joe Clark got lit that afternoon after school. When Joe recovered from the shock of the firecracker exploding at his butt, which blew a hole in his new corduroy trousers, he looked around and could see four or five guys doubled up in hysterics. Even though Joe’s butt hurt a lot from the explosion he just waded into that group and started swinging. Little Biff was off to the side not laughing at all. He had his evil sneer and his squinty eyes and he just watched the melee. Joe did get special treatment from Mr. Irons. I know because I was beginning to get special treatment too. Mr. Irons selected four boys to join him on a drive up to Grand Coulee Dam one spring weekend. I don’t know why he picked four because three was a crowd in the back seat of his Peugeot. We had a fine time up at the dam but the unfairness of being singled out of a class of twenty-eight children seemed odd. It never dawned on me that the boys on the special trips were the ones with single mothers. Sympathy for disadvantaged youth or an avenue to a dating pool. I started seeing way too much of that guy.
When it came to all around school roughhousing I could hold my own with any of the boys in my class. When the weather got warmer we wrestled around in the morning on the way to school, we wrestled at recess, at noon and after school. It was a very physical year and I enjoyed the horseplay as much as anyone and there were several matches where I got the other kid to “give up” someone’s signal that they weren’t going anywhere. They were usually being sat upon at the Moment of giving up. Ray Higley could never get me to give up and I got him to give up on a regular basis which was why I liked him so much. My esteem did not get much of a boost from whipping Higley but it was better than nothing. We worked all year to make a few points of esteem so that we could hold our heads up around one another. Doing well at kickball or wrestling or being able to run someone down in a horseplay chase created a few points. We all had a few points. The points were constantly being exchanged in the sports we loved, especially baseball. Once the weather warmed up and the days got longer, there was usually one good baseball game a week. Usually down at the large vacant lot a few blocks past black street. My route duties kept me from a lot of the games but as spring progressed the games lasted longer and I was able to play a few innings before darkness made it dangerous to be tossing and batting a hardball around. I was hitting in just about every game. Our pitchers were nowhere near as scary as little league guys. There were never any adults anywhere near our games just fourteen to twenty boys having a great time playing ball after school and almost always on the weekends. We just loved the hell out of baseball. I especially loved it because of my new glove. I also liked being together with the guys focused on a sport instead of each other.
There were a couple of times when the horseplay at school escalated into a loss of temper. One day in the basement lunchroom Kenny Hough accused Allen McNeil of smelling the girls’ bicycle seats when nobody was looking. This was a pure fabrication and skinny, quiet, studious Allen tied into Ken and rattled his cage. Ken had to take it all back right there in front of everyone. That always amazed me, how Allen just exploded out of nowhere and stood up for himself. I was very impressed. Girls were giving Allen their chocolate milk for days. The winner of the macho fifth grader award goes to Kenny Humphries for clobbering Bobby Washington who had popped Kenny in the ear for walking within one hundred yards of his house, and for being white. Kenny just simply wasn’t afraid of anyone as far as I could tell and he got smacked quite often in his travels around the neighborhood. Most of the nicer guys were real chickenshits, such as myself but Kenny Humphries was a nice guy who worked on our helicopter project and he was a tough, brave boy. He was also smart enough not to get too carried away with 4’ goofy rockets and helicopters to nowhere made from cardboard. Kenny was interested in go-karts. They had real engines. I could not imagine ever being anywhere near a real go-kart, far too expensive. They were something from another part of town, another echelon of humanity. They were for big guys, I thought, until Kenny started talking about them.He was going to build one with his uncle. I spoke to Bud about go-karts. He was far too busy to even talk about them let alone build one. Bud was getting into very good condition. He was happy all the time. He came upstairs more often and ate dinner with us a couple of times a week. He took us out to dinner every once in awhile and generally radiated very good cheer. He began taking an evening class over at Gonzaga, physical anthropology. Mohenjadaro loomed large in his imagination at this time. He played his Bob Newhart records for us and a couple of his Shelly Berman albums. I just did not get the jokes. Bud introduced us all to Dave Brubeck and to Martin Denny. Bud loved the Weavers and played the “Wim-O-Way” song many times. Katy was getting letters from Bughie addressed from prison. They always made her laugh. Bughie was just an all around funny guy. Her new boyfriend broke the mold for her. Walt was 6’-4” tall and blonde. He was a massive guy and extremely polite and well spoken. He always called Mom “ma’am” which she liked. You could tell there was some attraction there but Mom steered clear for her health. Teresa was still deep into her studies and Regan was having a lot of fun hanging out with Miss Averill. The paper route was downright comprehensible as my skip trips dwindled to no more than one a week. I’m on a roll. Our lilac bushes are full and beautiful and both dogs are happy. There appears to be a lull in Mom’s dating. I think Mr. Irons just put her off the whole male enterprise. She began socializing with several of her friends from her radio days a few years ago. It seemed like there was a girlfriend sleepover just about every weekend. Mom seemed to be pretty happy although she was getting skinny. I impressed her one Saturday afternoon when I changed a flat on her Studebaker single-handedly. We were bringing a few cases of canned stew home from her warehouse. She just stood and watched as I removed the hubcap, loosened the lugs, jacked the car up, got the spare from the trunk and changed the tire. She wondered if I was born knowing how to change a tire. She couldn’t imagine how a ten-year-old could know such a thing. I couldn’t explain it myself. It just seemed simple as pie.
Mom’s girlfriend Goldie is like a movie star. She is tall, about 5’-10” she has short, shiny black hair in a D.A. She has a huge smile and she is always smiling. She is very buxom and has lots of cleavage showing when she comes to the house. She wears silk slacks and she has big diamond rings on a few fingers and big, flashy earrings. She is from a very wealthy family who have a big house on South Hill, the exclusive part of town with most of the mansions. Goldie is a raging alcoholic, and at age twenty-five is drinking a fifth of vodka every couple of days. Goldie doesn’t just come over to the house, she arrives. When she comes through the front door the whole house lights up. She is by far the happiest, most friendly, most smiling and radiant person who has ever been to our house. When Goldie is here she’s the color and everyone else is some shade of gray. Her teeth are the whitest teeth. Her lipstick on her full beautiful lips is the reddest red. She wears fine mauve scarves or bright yellow. She spends most of her time in New York. She has quit the radio business where she met Mom as a disk jockey on KPPG the all-woman radio station, “24 hours of hits 24 hours a day.” They played a lot of country music as well as rock and roll and a few oldies like “Mr. Sandman” and “Doggie in the Window” and “Hot Diggity.” I used to sit and listen to Mom’s program after school. I liked almost all of the songs she played. Goldie called Mom her “Dinky Dye” because Mom says dinky dye when she means OK. It’s a term she picked up during our year in Australia. Goldie always gives me the fattest kiss right square on my lips and it takes me several minutes to wipe the lipstick off. She wears a hint of the latest French perfume so she always smells very very good. I think I dreamed about Goldie once and it was one of the good ones. Sometimes I think I might be in love with her. She seems to love everyone so much, especially Mom. Goldie never slept over but she spent many a long afternoon back in Mom’s bedroom. She would walk back out into the living room and she could hardly stand up from the drinking back there. She would fuss around with her slacks and say something nice and cheery then stagger down the front steps and drive off in her turquoise Thunderbird convertible with white upholstery and a sexy muffler. Her pretty scarf would be waving from her neck as she drove off into the sunset or the darkness depending on how late she stayed. Mom said she was worried about Goldie’s drinking but it sure seemed to make her happy.
Mom’s girlfriend Diane went to nursing school after leaving the radio station. She isn’t as flashy as Goldie but she is very beautiful, very blonde, very radiant as well but more down to earth. She’s warmer than Goldie and doesn’t smoke or drink. She’s a Mormon but she is not friendly with the church because she doesn’t want to get married. She has two children in Salt Lake City who live with their Dad. Diane always talks to me a lot. She asks a lot of questions about school and things I like and she just sits and listens while Mom gets ready to go out. She has a very nice smile and a big chest although she keeps her cleavage exposure to a minimum compared to Goldie’s big heaving crack, which I like, the crack. I like the flesh squeezing together. It’s a whole different thing to see breasts up close rather than over on the far wall through the dirty glass over behind the grocery store. Diane is extremely nice and she giggles sometimes and she likes the jokes I tell her. Mom comes out all spiffed up for the evening and off they go. Mom doesn’t say where they are going other than it’s a party out at one of the lakes. I dream about Diane. ***
Sharon’s a whole different story. Sharon is taking the same medication as Mom only even more. Sharon is a bundle of dynamite. She sits down in the living room and starts talking about her day which began at four thirty a.m. She worked out with weights for an hour then did a half hour of roadwork before knitting for an hour on a big wool sweater for her brother which is a very complicated sweater. She is a professor at Holy Names Academy and teaches class for six hours a day then corrects papers and goes to meetings. She works on her research paper for a couple of hours then starts drinking. The time she spends at our house is during her drinking time. She carries a little bottle in her leather jacket. She doesn’t wear any lipstick and she looks like a boy. She’s friendly but I know she is stretching to be friendly. She would rather be out kicking someone’s ass. She has an extremely pretty face but she doesn’t look like a nice person. She must be. My mother seems to like her a lot. When she stays over they don’t come out of the bedroom until long after I’ve put away my Jon Gnagy lessons. They’re grouchy in the mornings together and they just sit around smoking until Sharon leaves. Sharon rides a Harley and she needs all of her strength just to handle that great machine. She’s like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” She zooms off with a cigarette hanging from her lips.
Mom gave up on men and Christianity at the same time. In April she decided that from this point forward she would be worshiping Chief Crazy Horse. It was nine-thirty p.m. She was in her big easy chair, in her sci-fi robe. She had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The room was full of smoke. Regan, Teresa and I were at her feet listening. Mom loved an audience. She sent me off to cook some eggs for her and she made the announcement of her new religion as she ate her eggs. She never spoke with her mouth full.
“I’m sick of the goddamned Christians. They’re the bloodiest, killingest, meanest, most destructive people God ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth.” I think she was quoting something but she never said what.
“When you look back over history, it’s just one long bloodbath.”
Mom found a ceramic statue of an Indian chief with a long headdress and said it was Chief Crazy Horse and from now on she would celebrate his birthday and not that of Jesus. Crazy Horse’s birthday would be coming up sometime in April and she wanted us to remember it. ***
After several months of diligently copying the motifs presented in my Jon Gnagy kit and on the television program I graduated from the precooked lessons and followed my own developing fascination with smoodging flesh. This is the place on a human body where fat squeezed together. Merely adding shade and shadow to bales of cotton and staved wooden barrels was not enough to contain my fascination with the play of light and my growing skill at capturing it on paper. It was even more thrilling than watching my Dad sketch jet fighter planes in perspective, my original amazing encounter with two dimensional representation. Dad could draw like a bandit and he was very quick with his lines. He was a very assured draftsman. I started out trying to capture the soft, dark line I remembered between Goldie’s breasts then moved to the backs of arms up near the top where the arm flesh presses into the back. Naked toes became objects of interest and the naked backsides and butt cracks I could see through Nevin’s dirty office window on his girlie posters. At first I tried to draw these special intersections as a single black charcoal line but that did not capture the luscious magic. The cracks were long, dark places, places with little or no light, secret places. When I looked really close, I could see that they weren’t lines but beautiful shadows. Narrow, secret shadows in deep, warm, happy places. I stared at Sara’s naked butt when she stood at her kitchen counter during my sleepover mornings. She had a marvelous, curving horizontal S-shaped smoodge at the place where her round butt met the top of her thighs, overlapping just a little bit. Her butt is so pretty, especially when she turns around from the sink and walks over to the table with our plates. I tried to draw the sweet jiggle but speed lines only work on cartoons. The sunlight shining through her lacy kitchen curtains made a pretty, dancing pattern all across her back. When Mom asked me to rub her feet at night, which was almost once a week, I got a close look at her toe cleavage but I was so busy rubbing I didn’t get a chance to study the dark places between her toes. She has long toes and isn’t very ticklish at her feet. Kenny Humphries was the only one of my friends who really appreciated my flesh drawings. I traded him a small sketch on newsprint of Goldie’s smoodging breasts for a Frank Howard Spokane Indians baseball card. Kenny thought I was a real good artist. ***
Two weeks before Crazy Horse’s birthday I came home from the route and watched Mom dance on the coffee table top in her grass skirt. She had her guitar strapped on and was singing “Rum and Coca Cola.” The table top was over three feet in diameter so she was pretty safe up there. I tossed my bags in the corner and just sat there and watched as she danced and sang for at least half an hour before she even said hi. She was very drunk but not too drunk to dance and sing. Teresa was over at the Wollensak getting it all on tape. There was a medley of Gene Autry songs, “Jambalaya” and a few insipid cowboy campfire numbers about the lone prairie and fences. Mom knew about six chords and wasn’t a bad singer. She was showing quite a lot of her beautiful legs through the hula grass which I found just about embarrassing but not quite. She was having such a good time. She liked to play her old beat up little guitar and sing quite a bit. She said it was the Irish in her. She would normally sing from her big chair but tonight it was full hula regalia. Katy was embarrassed when she came home with her boyfriend in the middle of the final numbers but her date said she had a really wild mother in a tone that suggested that this was a very good thing so Katy didn’t make an issue of it. Later on Mom changed into her sci-fi silks and called for her eggs. The evening was nearing an end. Tonight’s topic is priests and their failures to respond to her cries for help. This was three beers after the singing and dancing stopped so the self-pity was leaking back. It was like a tide in her. She forced the pity out in the morning when she had her coffee, popped her amphetamines and dressed for work. When the workday stress was over and she had several beers, the tide of pity would roll back in. It was a daily cycle. Tough and tender, tough then tender. Her tenderness was that of a person who had been skinned alive. She was intensely sensitive and expected her children to be sensitive as well. It was expected that we would be able to read her mind, her silences. If we screwed something up like eating the last of the Sunday spaghetti for dinner Tuesday night and she came home from the tavern and wanted spaghetti for dinner instead of eggs she would either be screaming, “Who in the hell ate the last of my spaghetti!!” or she would start the silent treatment for a couple of days until, after having examined every corner of our collective behavior we came up with the notion that Mom’s incredible silence might be because she didn’t have her spaghetti. We would proffer this idea at one of the Mom-o-logues and she would agree that she had indeed been angry about her missing spaghetti. I decided that the spaghetti or whatever food she was upset about wasn’t the real issue. It was a matter of being trained to read her mind and to focus all of our available brainpower on her needs, anticipating her needs and learning the patterns of her needs. This was far more important than schoolwork. Needs assessment.
“I will not tolerate stupidity!!” she would say.” ***
Bobby Washington is a nasty black teenager but the nastiness doesn’t run in his family. I saw his older brother Wilson do something very brave. Something I wish I could have done and something I told myself I would do if I were ever in a similar situation because dogs are dependent upon having their owners treat them well. This was down near the park. A man was stepping on his bulldog’s head and screaming at it when Wilson, who was riding past on his Schwinn Corvette, stopped and got right in the man’s face and told him in a very serious voice:
“Get your damned foot off that dog before I kick your ass motherfucker!”
“Mind your own business niggernuts. She’s my dog.”
It was hard for me to believe that one person could make so many mistakes all at once. They all added up at lightning speed. Mistreating an animal, talking back to Wilson Washington, talking back in anything but a pleasant, conciliatory tone of voice, using the “N” word, not obeying a command issuing from Wilson Washington and on and on. This man’s problems were multiplying like a chain reaction in a hydrogen bomb. Wilson began by simply knocking the stupid guy down and out with his first punch. The dog started biting Wilson’s leg. Wilson calmed the dog down and tied him to a light pole. Wilson kicked at the man until he came to and warned him:
“If I ever see you mistreat that dog again I’m gonna really do you some damage!”
“Fuck you nigger,” the beaten man said quietly.
I know Wilson heard this but he just rode off. He had made his point. I saw the whole thing from across the street. I don’t think Wilson saw me. It was the bravest thing that I saw all year.
I didn’t feel as much sympathy for cats as I did for dogs. There are many things I like about dogs: they recognize me. They are always glad to see me which I know from their wagging tails as well as their smiles. They don’t pee on your stuff on purpose the way a cat will and they come when you call them. When I heard that Prince and Skip Calvin were tying two cats’ tails to a string and tossing them over a clothesline to watch them fight, I wasn’t nearly as upset as I would have been if it were little dogs. ***
When I got home from the Wilson dog incident Saturday afternoon, Mom said I needed a haircut. I told her the barbers around here give me the willies. She volunteered to take me down to the Moler barber college where I used to get my hair cut when we lived at the Hutton Settlement. The Moler barber college was a large room with about twenty chairs, ten per side. It wasn’t too far from Piss ‘N Popcorn. I called Saylor to see if he wanted to go to a movie. He said sure but he had a friend over. I said to go ahead and bring your friend. My Mom will drive us down. It’ll only take ten or fifteen minutes for my haircut then Mom will drop us off at the movies, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Wild Ones.” My heart sank to the soles of my feet when I saw who Saylor had brought along. His friend was Biff Calvin. Sheeeeeiiiitttt! What was happening! I immediately flashed on the connection between Biff’s older brother Skip and the Blinky incident in the playhouse. I thought Biff and Skip looked like twins. They had the same butch haircuts and very squinty, mean eyes. Mom greeted the meanest boy in our fifth grade class as though he was just a normal kid. Wow! This was going to be interesting. I was scared and nervous and I stayed that way all the way downtown. Saylor and Biff were in the back seat and I was in the front seat with Mom. I kept asking Biff stupid questions to keep his mind busy so he wouldn’t say something totally humiliating to me.
“Biff! Hey! That rhymes with spiff! Like spiffy! You’re a spiffy guy Biff! Ha ha!” I was not being very imaginative or very cool. I looked at Biff. He squinted back and didn’t say anything. I decided to just shut up. Mom created a little bit of conversation and we arrived without incident. She dropped us off at the barber college where the gang from the Hutton Settlement was in getting their bi-weekly shearing. I saw several of my old friends from the fourth grade. They were all tucked under their large striped protective bibs. There was Hilsabeck my wrestling buddy with his chipped front tooth, always smiling. Louis Douphanes the Apache Indian kid who always got such a hard time from Elmer, the groundskeeper. Louis got popped upside his head one afternoon when he mixed around the lyrics of Elmer’s favorite song LaVerne Baker’s “I Cried a Tear,” and changed it to “I Cried a Turd.” Elmer was a burly Irishman, all muscle, all macho and for some reason we could never fathom he just hated Louis, always riding him. I felt sorry for all of my old friends. They hadn’t gotten retrieved by their loved ones. They were still all ganged together living in their Georgian mansion in the park. My hair got butchered by a brand new student. Biff swiped his hand across the top of my head in a friendly teasing gesture and we proceeded to the movies. Biff and Saylor got along great and I was loosening up a bit. I was beginning to feel like a fellow cheetah rather than a gazelle about to get its legs swatted out from under it. We had a pleasant walk home. Not a single humiliating incident or embarrassment caused by Biff. He seemed like a regular guy. Maybe I was just imagining things about his malevolence. Seeing all of my friends from last year made me sad. They were envious that I had someone in my life who cared enough to come and take me. Many of the boys had single parents, usually fathers. They were wards of the court. A few of them had no parents at all. These children were looked upon with a special pity by the rest of us because there was no chance they were getting out before they turned eighteen. Candy was an orphan. She was seventeen and very beautiful. She had one year to go last year so her time was about up. She had a beautiful face and a beautiful body which I stared at down at the big pool behind the “cottages” the name for the mansions. I asked Candy what she was going to do when she got out. She said she was going to live with her older sister in Twin Falls Idaho and get a job as a secretary. She could have been a movie star. She was way prettier than either Sandra Dee or Connie Francis. Bud saw her once on a visit with Mom and said, “What a doll!” ***
An orphan is a bottomless pit. There is nothing to stop their mind or their heart from going all the way down into the darkness. If you have a mother and father or just one or the other then there is something to stop you from thinking too much. If someone is not there in your life then the bottom just isn’t there and a person has to hang onto the side of a great wide shaft. That’s how I see life. It is a huge shaft that is hundreds of feet in diameter and it is made of concrete with protrusions on the side. Everyone is hanging onto the side. There are a few people who get to stand at the top, on the rim and look down on everyone else. It is your parents who tell you where you are going to have to live in this huge pipe. You will either be up near the light and fresh air or down in the darkness somewhere. Maybe you will be in the middle but if you are orphan then you don’t know where to exist and you try it at the top but you don’t belong and you may try it in the middle but it is very crowded and most of the space is taken up by people who know who their parents are. Orphans fall way deep into the bottom and have a hard struggle to climb back into the light or a manageable shade of gray. Some just fall way way deep inside into the blackness and don’t have the strength or the confidence to get up or even to stop falling. There really isn’t a bottom to this hole. This is the hole that Bud falls into every year. He must reach a place in the darkness where he stops falling because he always climbs back into the light and every year he dances on the top rim usually in early summer before the grueling labor has worn him out. He must have a system in his mind for stopping his fall. He always comes back. If you don’t like your parents and fight with them and think they are fools they have still given you a space on the side of the hole. If you didn’t learn much from them about the strategies for getting higher into the light at least you have a knob to hold onto that keeps you from falling. It’s there if you need it. It is very interesting to think of the behavior that works best in the lighter parts up higher because that very same behavior will get you beat to shit in my neighborhood. If you’re a nice, quiet kid who likes to read like Kenny McPhereson then you will suffer. If Kenny was a lot closer to the light in a nicer part of the ring then his nice manners and friendliness would help him a lot and make his life happier. If the gentlemen from the light try to reason with Biff and Skip’s Dad, he’s not likely going to get far. The things that keep you floating and skipping around in the light on the upper ring are things you can’t readily see or touch like musical talent. They are things you can’t just walk up and steal from someone. If a man is good at math and is an engineer or not quite as smart and is a doctor or lawyer then he has invisible skills that take his whole life to learn. You can’t just take skills away. If Bud falls on a piece of rebar and puts a hole in his arm, he’s done for the season. The most quiet and sensitive skills have the most value. Artists live highest in the light. They have the finest skill. Jon Gnagy must be an angel.
The thing about artists and getting into the light is that just saying you are an artist doesn’t just float you right up there. Being and saying are different, that’s why the top of the ring isn’t very crowded with artists. Artists have to struggle and learn just like a good car mechanic or a carpenter. Art is something in your heart and soul and your mind, not just one or the other. You can see the art in someone’s work. You can see the love and intelligence of their heart in the lines they make and the colors they use. You can tell by how they make marks on paper or canvas. The love is invisible to most people. The love that real artists put into their work. It is gentle and very strong and it is always beautiful. That’s why a drawing of an ugly thing like a beat up old machine can be beautiful. It is the grace of the lines and colors. People in the light are full of grace. Grace is very strong. ***
I am very glad to be living with my Mom and not at the Hutton Settlement, even though it is a very nice place with extremely high-class buildings and lots of very nice people. They are not my parents and they wouldn’t really be able to keep me from falling. ***
It’s Saturday night. We had a great ballgame over at Braverman’s lot. It’s the really nice lot, about four acres of weeds. We made a great little baseball diamond and have some marathon contests with guys from all over this part of town. No adults. A couple of hours of ball after the route and I’m tired out. I’m in the middle of a baseball dream. I’m at bat in the Spokane Indians ballpark. I’m waiting for a pitch when I am awakened by a loud rapping on a steel box on my dresser. My room is lit from moonlight. I sit up in bed. The rapping continues. I am wide-ass awake and scared out of my mind. I can see the box. There is no one there but the rapping continues. I am frozen with fear sitting up. I can feel the hair on the back of my neck. The rapping suddenly stops well after I sit up. I am panicked and frozen stiff. My heart has started beating again and it is beating fast. Regan is over in her bed sound asleep. I am far too afraid to get up. I just wait for ten minutes or so in the quiet. I get up to go downstairs to take a pee. I touch the door handle and Mom lets out a blood curdling howling scream. I am afraid to even open her door. She stops screaming, doesn’t even wake up and when I mention this scream she won’t remember it. I call Sara. My voice is shaking. It is 2:30 a.m.
“Sara, can I come over and sleep with you?”
“Who is this?”
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, just wondering if I can come over?”
“Tell me what’s the matter, honey.”
“Can I come to your house?” I knew she lived in an apartment but I said house. I meant your place, not house, but I was nervous and still very jumpy from the rapping and the scream.
“Yeah, sure honey, come on over.”
I went back upstairs and dressed in my jeans and combat boots and trekked over to Sara’s in the middle of the night. The air smelled so clean. Sara was waiting up for me and took me into her room and let me crawl into bed with her. We slept until the sunshine got too bright. She awakened me by petting my forehead. I was in heaven somewhere. Sara got out of bed first and walked over to the big pair of windows. She pulled the sheer curtains aside and tied them. We were on the fourth floor but we could still hear the occasional car drive by. It was a quiet and delightful morning. Sara sat back on the edge of the bed and loosened her nightgown and let it fall from her shoulders. I noticed the exciting cleavage between her upper arms and her back. I was wondering how to draw it and trying to memorize the curves.
“Rub my back, Jimmy, please.”
I started rubbing fast here and there.
“Slow down and scratch. I should have said scratch. I love how you scratch me.”
I scratched up and down and sideways as slowly as possible.
“Harder, scratch me harder.”
She purred and cooed and said “Yummy, you sure are good.”
“Can we fix some breakfast?” I asked. She turned around and with her exquisitely tender breasts jiggling just slightly a few inches from my face said: “I’ll fix you anything you want.” She lay down beside me and held my hand.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asked.
“Yes.” I answered.
“Just how pretty do you think I am?”
“You’re really pretty.”
“Do you think my chest is pretty?”
“Would you like to touch it?”
“I think it’s time for breakfast.”
“Touch me first.”
I touched the side of her left breast as she rolled into me and trapped my hand under her breast. She started giggling and tousling my hair. She started kissing my face and it was so slow and so nice I forgot about breakfast. Sara kissed me for a long time. I kissed her back after a while then we just kept kissing and laughing and horsing around on her bed and kissing some more then the hugging started and we had a very big very long hug and kiss together that lasted forever. ***
Dad comes over to Spokane to pick me up for a fishing trip. It is the last time he will see us for quite awhile. He got a job as a construction engineer on the Titan missile bases down in Southern Idaho. He’ll be working for Martin Marietta based at the Mountain Home Air Base near Boise. He is moving to Mountain Home way out in the desert in a couple of weeks. He says it’s a great job and he’ll be glad not to be poking around for the forest service. I’ve got the yard all cleaned up this time and I take him up to my room while I pack my clothes. I’m a little embarrassed about how crappy my room is. I have a few plastic planes lying around and the aircraft junk pile of all the weird stuff Mom’s friends have brought over. Mr. Irons’s TV is still on the floor. I haven’t even plugged it in to see if it works. I feel like if I do I’ll be way more connected to the man that I want to be. I eventually give it to Saylor who has never had a television. I have carved a small heart into the jamb of my bedroom door, inside the heart is Sara + Jim. My Dad sees it and tells me not to carve up the house. Then he asks if I have a girlfriend. I’m too embarrassed to talk about it. I know my Dad is thinking that I have a messy room and that it’s probably pathetic to him. I need to get some cooler stuff for when he comes over. I’ve also got to clean up the messy chemistry set. It’s so pretty when you open up the box but after a few mixes and matches it’s a cruddy mess. The sulfur experiment was a big hit with the sisters. All four of us sleep up here. It stunk the whole upstairs for a day or two. ***
Dad’s taking me to Sandpoint for the weekend. We’re going fly fishing. Regan doesn’t mind. She is spending the weekend with Miss Averill and Miss Averill’s husband Bob, an amateur filmmaker and a hair stylist. Teresa doesn’t mind. She is going rollerskating with her friends. Katy wouldn’t go fishing if you paid her.
“Make sure you bring him back by nine. He’s got clothes that need ironing and floors to scrub.” I think she had a touch of humor in her voice but it was hard to tell. Dad and I drove off in a hurry. After a silent half hour of speeding and scaring the hell out of me by passing on blind corners Dad said to me:
“Can you say shit?”
“What do you mean?
“Say shit for me.” I was embarrassed and said nothing. There was a nervous silence then he said.
“Aw, you don’t have to say shit. What would your mother think if she heard you say shit?” It was a rhetorical question.
These were funny people, Mom and Dad and I don’t mean funny ha ha. My Mom hated everything I ever did that reminded her of Dad and he loathed the quiet, sensitive side of me that reminded him of her. They genuinely feared and loathed each other and those things in me that reminded them of one another. There was no aspect of my being that at least one of them did not openly loathe.
We arrived at the trout stream late in the afternoon. We were many miles up a narrow rutted gravel road deep in the woods. We hiked for at least a mile through dense brush. The stream was lined by big boulders and there were very large trees that had fallen. The stream was very fast and there were big, deep green pools here and there. It was a beautiful place if you could just stop and look at it but fishing isn’t a stationary art.
Dad is a passionate fly fisherman. He has a clear plastic box divided into twenty compartments each with a different fly. There are four or five of each type and Dad carefully selects one after determining what type of insect is present down near the water.
I am not fishing today. I am just watching. It would be too much trouble to get me a pole so I’m just tagging along. Dad gets up ahead of me a hundred yards or so and continues his search for fish as I struggle through the scratchy, dense brush far behind him. I quickly lose sight of him. For the next hour and a half, until just before dark I am picking brush out of my way heading upstream. It is a miserable experience. Dad returns with his five beautiful brook trout. He is very proud of himself as he opens his canvas creel and picks one up to show me. We race back into Sandpoint at sixty or seventy on a very curvy road. Dad swears a little at the slow drivers and he’s always flashing his bright lights on and off as oncoming cars pass. Dad cooks up the fish for dinner. After the meal he cleans off the checkered oil cloth covering the table and brings his big, beautiful leatherbound Sydney atlas out. We sit at the table and he shows me maps of some of the countries he has worked in.
“This is the Belgian Congo. We were on our way to a checkpoint one night about two hundred miles inland through very dense grassland. It must have been midnight or so when we came to a fork in the narrow dirt road. If we took the wrong road here we would drive all night in the wrong direction. We could hear drumming nearby and voices singing, chanting. Three of us walked a short distance through some 6’ tall grass and as we neared the clearing we could see dancing around a fire. There was a flayed creature on a spit being turned slowly over the fire. It appeared to all three of us to be a human baby. We took out the binoculars for a closer look and saw that it was a monkey being roasted. We had no choice but to interrupt this celebration to ask directions or we could have failed our entire survey mission. The natives were very friendly and pointed us toward the road.”
Dad then turned to the map of Peru and told stories of working up very high in the mountains on a mining road where there were lots of llamas. He spoke of his many friends and of being at the Lima airport the day Vice President Nixon arrived for a conference. A small group of Peruvian activists threw rocks at Nixon’s limousine. Dad turned to a map of New Guinea and told a story of his six week trek through the mountain jungle of Irian Jaya to locate a mining road and its tunnels through the mountains. He turned to a map of the United States and showed me the northwest corner of Montana where he worked on a big dam construction project. We turned to the map of Australia where he spent two years, the first was spent as the leader of a survey crew for two hundred miles of railroad, the second year was as a construction engineer at the Munitions plant. Mom and my three sisters sailed down to join him during that year. We arrived in Sydney after a 17-day cruise on a British passenger ship The Orcades. We called it the “Orcades, rockadies, bumpadies.” After the trip around the globe in the atlas, Dad showed me his 35mm slide collection boxes. He had over ten thousand color slides of all of the places he traveled. He is a very talented photographer. I was too tired to look at no more than a few and we retired to bed. In the morning Dad showed me the 24” x 36” canvas he was working on. He was going to try to create his first oil painting. Upon the canvas was drawn a small space capsule orbiting the moon. The spacecraft was modeled on a photo Dad had seen of Alan Shepherd’s Mercury vehicle. Dad was fascinated by outer space and loved the idea of the manned space program. He was excited about his new job in Mountain Home building the Titan silos. Not quite the space program, it would be one more chapter in his ongoing participation in the cold war. Before we left for breakfast Dad had me try to lift his two hundred pound barbell. I couldn’t budge it. He lifted it over his head ten times and reminded me for the umpteenth time that when he was in the Navy training for his fights, he could clean and press 220 pounds ten times.
I was always amazed by my Dad’s physical strength, his facility with mathematics and physics, his ability to draw, his ability to assume leadership of large groups of men and his general capability to figure just about anything out. The only weak point in this tower of invincibility was my mother. He told me many many times that he still loved her and that he would always love her and he was generally mystified by her hatred of him. I was baffled by his declarations of love given how many hundreds of times I saw them yelling and fighting. Dad just looked at fighting as a natural, everyday part of life and didn’t see why it should interfere with people’s love for one another. He grew up fighting every day in the logging camps. It was just what people did. How else would you know “whose ass was the blackest.” ***
In mid-May a new television program was introduced on the local channel that changed the direction of my interest in art from drawing to painting. It was “Dave Pegler’s Paint World.” It was on Saturday mornings just an hour after Jon Gnagy making Saturday a heavy art day. Pegler had five rules of paint and he would announce all five of the rules at the start of each program and then proceed to elaborate on one of his concepts. Pegler’s rules are as follows: 1. The sky is not boring. The sky is full of exploding galaxies, comets, planets, cosmic rays and many other things. Remember some of these things once you get the blue painted in or the pink, if it’s sunset. 2. Never use a color straight from the tube especially red, yellow or blue unless you are painting flags, colors should always be muted with their complement before use. 3. Never use black paint to make a shadow. Never make a gray shadow from mixing white and black paint as this creates a cancer on the painting--a dead spot. All shadows are to be muted colors. 4. Always make friends with the paint before you start. Paint is a living thing and it can hurt you. Play with it, experiment with it, get to know it before you start. And last, 5. Paint is expensive, don’t waste it. Just because we no longer have to grind our own colors doesn’t mean that we should waste our colors. “It is easy to squeeze, it’s hard to paint cheese” was Dave Pegler’s motto which meant--don’t waste paint. After a few lessons from Dave I knew how to thin my paints, how to keep my brushes clean and best of all, how to have fun. Dave Pegler said it was important to find the fun in the paint that we weren’t trying to whip the Russians in our artwork. “Let’s leave that to the scientists,” he suggested. Dave Pegler always wore a cowboy hat and said, “Put a lasso around your talent.” Teresa never watched the Gnagy show but she was fascinated by Dave Pegler’s facility with color. He demonstrated very simple ways to make color “sing.” Teresa, being an excellent student, decided to paint more often and learn how to make her paint sing. She liked pastels much better than oil paints because the chalks didn’t stink. Teresa kept to herself for the most part. She never joined in the fighting over which television program we watched. She was usually doing her eighth grade homework. She did her share of the housework and performed her evening duties as part of the audience for the evening Mom-o-logue. At tonight’s session she brought up a problem she was having at school. One of her classmates is Mom’s boss’s daughter Trish who discovered through her immensely distraught mother that her father was spending time over at our house. This was true. Even though his mouth looks rather pinched there was something about his quiet, gray at the temples, authority that appealed to Mom and Lou Forbes dropped over from time to time. Usually just to sit on the corner of her bed and calm her down. She wouldn’t care if we saw him in her bedroom and would send us for beers to be delivered to her bedside with him sitting right there stroking her hair at the end of a session of crying. She called Lou when she was really upset and he would come over, sometimes still in his gray suit and comfort her.
Trish screamed at Teresa in the hallway at school to “Tell your mother to stay away from my Dad! Your mother is breaking up our family!!”
Mom didn’t quite know what to say and was a little embarrassed that Teresa was bringing the subject up with the rest of us around. Mom said she was going to stop seeing Lou and that neither Trish nor Teresa had anything further to be concerned about. I felt sorry for Teresa. She was such an excellent student and always minded her own business. She got an A+ on her atomic energy report and her “Blue Boy” painting was a big hit. Mom told us the Vincent Van Gogh story after she comforted Teresa. We were all amazed that he cut off his ear and sent it to his ex-lover. We had a print of “Sunflowers” on the dining room wall. Van Gogh’s troubles made any problems we were dealing with seem minor. Mom liked to continually remind us how good we had it compared to the Jews at Auschwitz or the American Indians or the hungry people downtown. She mentioned from time to time that she was tired of hearing about the starving Chinese when we had so many poor people in Appalachia and down south. She came down very hard against racism and always welcomed my black buddies into our house.
I have a black friend Willie Jefferson who lives a block and a half away. He and his mother don’t live on the black streets but over by the avenue. One afternoon their house and three next to it burned to the ground in a very large, dramatic conflagration that attracted hundreds of people. Mom invited them to live at our house while they waited to move in with relatives. Willie and his Mom stayed for one night.
Teresa thinks Bud looks like Elmer Fudd and she mentioned this to him and he got a laugh out of it. Bud is working very hard now. It is mid-May and he has been working six days a week, ten hours a day all spring. He is making good wages and has caught up on all of his back rent and even loaned Mom some money to get her over a rough spot. Bud takes a little job building a gazebo on the back lawn of one of the big homes up on the hill. This will be his Sunday job for a few weeks. He invited me to join him so that we might reprise the master apprentice relationship we shared in Topeka when he taught me how to hold a hammer and how to pound a nail without smashing my fingers. I developed a strong affection for the smell of fresh sawn wood down in the basement of Bud’s Topeka apartment. I was surprised that he asked me to help because I know he is a ferociously hard worker when he gets going and I thought I might slow him down. He convinces me that he really needs the help and I am happy for an excuse to try something out of the ordinary. We drive up to the Bowles residence and park out front under a huge elm tree. Bud ensures that Heavy Betty has room to roll forward. The butler or helper, whoever he is takes us around the side of the huge, brick house, three stories plus the eight gabled dormers. The roof is slate with green copper flashing. When I look up at the top floor of the back of the house there is a redheaded girl standing in the window in a cotton dress. She smiles at us and gives a little wave before turning away. Bud and I spend a couple of hours digging postholes. With the help of the handyman we place the posts in concrete and Bud shores them before we stop work for the day. The girl from upstairs has come to her side door and she asks us if we would like some lemonade. She is very pretty. Her skin looks so thin and so white and so fragile. Her name is Daphne. Her mother owns the Spokane Chronicle. I ask her why the paper has to be so heavy on Wednesdays. She doesn’t know but when we come back next Sunday she will have an answer. When Bud and I drive up there is no place to park. Mom’s Studebaker bulletnose and the cars of her two girlfriends, Diane and Goldie are taking up the space Bud used for Heavy Betty. We end up parking way down the block near Bobby Washington’s street. It makes me nervous.
Diane and Goldie brought friends. There are five very pretty women in our living room not including Mom who is in the kitchen fixing a big pot of spaghetti and some French bread. The women are over to watch the Miss America Pageant which is preceded by ‘Starlit Stairway’ a local TV talent show. These ladies are all pretty rough on the young talent on ‘Stairway’ but once the pageant gets rolling the big guns come out.
“Look at those thighs!”
“Good Lord, what a fat ass!”
“Look at the ham hocks on that one!”
The ladies on TV looked very pretty to me and I couldn’t understand why Mom’s friends were being so harsh. I figured that if these women were in the Miss America Pageant they must be just about perfect to begin with but no, not to Mom and her friends. The more they ate and drank, the more critical they got. No young contestant came away unscathed. “Fat arms, fat ass again, chunky butt, needs a shave, droopy neck, knobby knees, splay foot, cow thighs, chicken lips, dopey hair…”
All of the women in our living room had remarks about the answers to the global questions concerning world peace. Toward the end of the show some hot rodders were rumbling up and down our street making too much noise, interrupting the broadcast. I went to the front door and made a remark in a nasty tone of voice picked up from my father when he vented at annoying drivers. “Somebody ought to shut those birds up!” I said trying to sound authoritative. Mom told me to never, ever use the term birds for people. “It’s one of the dumbest things your father ever does and I just can’t stand it! Sometimes you remind me so much of your damned father! Where’s the gentle Jimmy I love?” She was getting gooey. One minute she is lacerating the most beautiful girls in America the next minute she is trying to get me to soften my attitude. This wasn’t a “do as I do” household.
It’s Friday afternoon. I’m waiting after school for Joe Clark who is going to help me deliver papers so we can get over to the big game of hardball over at Braverman’s lot. Rita and Carolyn walk past and stop to talk for a minute. They want to come too. Wow! A paper route party. We all walk over to my corner and the bundle is waiting. I snap the wire and Rita pulls a paper off of the stack and begins to read an article.
“Maurice Stans, director of the budget has nixed a proposal by the Secretary of the Navy to launch a one billion dollar nuclear ice breaker development program. Stans remarked to the press corps that strict controls are necessary to maintain a balanced federal budget, the first in the United States since the Civil War.”
“Okay, okay,” Carolyn said, “enough.” She grabbed the paper from Rita.
“Here,” I said, taking the paper. “I’ll show you how to fold.” Joe, Rita, Carolyn and I started my route looking like the characters from the Wizard of Oz. Rita and Carolyn were skipping down the sidewalk as Joe and I folded more papers. Rita and Carolyn left after the first ten houses. There was some question about which ten houses got the paper. Carolyn thought everyone should read the paper. Joe and I finished an hour and a half later at around 6:30 and headed over to Saylor’s place to see if he wanted to play in the big game. He did. We picked up Ray Higley, Kenny Humphries and jack, Rita’s brother. We stopped at my house. I picked up my glove and we all headed down to the lot.
There were 14 guys milling around deciding who was going to be on what team and who would play each necessary position. I was playing third base. There were several faces I didn’t recognize, guys from a neighboring elementary school. There were several sixth graders, no fourth graders. There was quite a bit of horsing around and the usual baseball taunting. There is a fine point to good natured taunting that I hadn’t picked up on which was that you try not to be too specific. You try to keep it good-natured and relatively impersonal. The sun set. The sky was a beautiful pink, mauve, lavender, orange. The air was warm and fragrant. It would be getting dark soon. During the next to last inning my team was losing by a couple of runs and the taunts were taking on an edge. When a skinny blonde kid named Henry Phipps came up to bat, for reasons that are not at all clear to me, I hollered from third base.
“Hey fat ass!” My taunt was apropos of nothing. Henry looked out at me wondering why someone was calling him names. When Henry came up to bat the next inning, the last inning I called to him again.
“Hey fat ass, let’s see you get a hit.” Henry Phipps struck out. It was the third out. The last out of the game. It had become too dark to see the ball. Henry walked out to me followed by half of the members of his team and asked me,
“Why did you call me fat ass?” His tone was not friendly.
“Umm, I don’t know.” I answered sheepishly, surprised to see both teams gathering around us, fourteen boys. They were arrayed in concentric rings watching as Phipps slugged me in the side of the head. I was shocked and frightened. It rattled my consciousness and hurt like hell.
“You shouldn’t have called me fat ass, fat ass.” He said sneering. Phipps slugged me again and again in the head, once on each ear. Now I was really rattled and put up my hands to shield my face as the others were starting to yell, “Hit him! Hit the motherfucker again, Phipps, he deserves it!” Phipps hit me again. More taunting and egging on from the crowd. “Go Phippy, cold cock the twerp!” Phipps struck again and I turned around pushing against the crowd to get away. He slugged me in the back of the head and then pushed me into a grassy depression just beyond the left base line. He jumped on top of me and I cried out,
“Stop hitting me! Stop hitting me!” I was shocked and crying with my face down in the muddy grass still being hit on the back of the head.
Larry White said, “Leave the chickenshit alone, he had enough.” Larry was disgusted. Kenny Humphries came over and asked,
“Why didn’t you hit him back? You didn’t even hit him once! He’s littler than you!!” Kenny walked off disgusted.
“What a chickenshit!”
“Sheeeeitt, a crybaby!”
“God damn, disgusting!”
The crowd dispersed. They were all disgusted by the spectacle. They had just witnessed one of their own become a zero, to cease to exist, to lose all esteem, every last shred of respect. A human black hole had been born. They had to get away. Ray Higley was the only boy to stay behind and walk me home. My clothes were muddy. My face was bleeding and throbbing from all of the blows. I was monstrously humiliated. I was still crying. I was asking Ray all the way home,
“Why couldn’t I hit him back? Why couldn’t I hit him back? I was frozen. I’m such a chickenshit. I’m just a total chickenshit!”
We sat on the side porch at my house. I could tell that everyone in my household was home. Tonight of all goddamn nights Mom didn’t have a date or a stint at the tavern. Katy was home ironing her clothes. Teresa and Regan were both home. Shit! They were all downstairs. I just sat on the porch with Ray and cried. I was just simply devastated and it was no secret. All of my friends were right there watching me beg for mercy that was not shown. Begging and crying and screaming for Phipps to stop hitting me. It was every boy’s absolute worst nightmare. It was my nightmare. After one whole year of slowly building myself up from new kid zero I was reduced to a place that is a thousand miles below zero. I was now a desolate citizen of negativeland and I would be reminded of my soul-sucking status all day every day at school until the school year ended three weeks later. The very longest three weeks of my life.
I eventually got tired of asking Ray for answers. He didn’t have any. He could probably imagine something similar happening to him but it was only in his imagination.
I slunk into the house through the back door that night after many reassurances from Higley that I wasn’t a chicken. I knew I was. I washed myself off and changed my clothes. I couldn’t hide the scrapes on my face or the bruises. I told my mother when she asked that I had fallen down. She had been in and around fights all of her life and she knew differently but she didn’t ask any further questions.
I absolutely dreaded going to school on Monday morning with a dread that was too large to imagine. I really really did not want to go to school again with these children. I was as good as dead. Worse than dead. I sat in the corner of the lunchroom that Monday and watched various groups of kids form, then point over to me, then look away and start giggling in disbelief. I could see Larry White telling Rita and Carolyn. I never saw him talk to them all year but there he was giving them the horrible details of my humiliation. I could see him showing them how Phipps hit me. I could hear him mimicking my voice. I screwed my insides into a very tight ball and just sat there and watched everyone sneer and giggle and look away. The entire fifth and sixth grade classes knew about it by the end of lunchtime. I was done, finished. No one except Higley wanted to know me and I made no effort to talk to anyone for the remaining weeks of school. Done, gone, over, zero. So very very much less than zero.
I was non-human, a chicken.
I was very thankful that Phipps did not go to our school. It would have been impossible to encounter him again. I never did. The last weeks of school are a lousy blur. I never played baseball again in that neighborhood. I lost my paper route when the summer started and spent the next two months in my bedroom just lying on my bed thinking. Once in awhile I would get out my Jon Gnagy kit and draw some pictures. The oil paints were not enticing. The weather soon got hot enough for swimming but I was deathly afraid to walk past Bobby Washington’s block so I just stayed home. One hot afternoon after I had been sweltering upstairs all day I heard Katy.
“Jim! There are some boys outside who want to see you!”
My heart sank. I became afraid.
“Tell them I’m not here!” I was afraid it was Prince or the Calvins or even Larry White.
“They really want you to come down!” she insisted.
Now I was getting really worried. I wondered if those guys would just come into my house and get me.
“I’m not coming down!” I screamed. I looked out my window and there was one of Mom’s friends from work with his son. They had a go-kart right down there on the sidewalk. I stuck my head out the window and said hello to them. They asked me a couple of times to come down. They wanted to let me drive their kart. I was humiliated now and told them that I didn’t want to come down. I was now afraid to leave my bedroom. I just stayed up in my very hot room for the rest of the summer. I saw no one. I stopped seeing Higley. I was too ashamed to see anyone. I just wanted to disappear. I got very depressed, very sad. I was at zero. I was ten and a half years old and just worthless. Drawing pictures gave me a hint of happiness. I love the way you could make something look three dimensional. As for Dave Pegler’s paint world. If he was so great why didn’t we have a Dave Pegler picture on our walls. Mr. Know It All, Mr. Television, Mr. Famous with his five rules. Mom called him a turd polisher.
Loon Lake is a very deep and very clean lake. I can see rounded rocks on the bottom that are twelve shades of slate, ochre and gray twenty feet below the end of the pier. I can see the trout and a turtle from time to time. The cry of the loons will wake me up and send a chill into my center. There is an Indian legend that the loons learned their cry from the newborn child of a princess who waited on a distant shore for the return of her warrior lover. He never returned and the princess and her child starved to death. My mother and my three sisters are staying in a large tent erected by Louis, one of the managers at the warehouse where Mom works. Louis and his wife and two small children are in a neighboring tent. The tents are surrounded by very tall fir trees. We are several hundred yards from the lake but only about one hundred yards from the community center. Our tent has a very powerful canvas smell and a Coleman lantern hanging against the center pole. The first night of our stay after everyone had gone up to the center to listen to the jukebox I decided to pump up the pressure in the lantern. I twisted the wrong knob and kerosene sprayed into my eyes. I was embarrassed about doing something stupid and didn’t tell anyone. It was very good to be away from school, away from the horrible embarrassment of having to see people who knew of my problem. I lie in my sleeping bag in the dark corner of this tent and I feel like there is a big clump of dark clay-like garbage around my heart. I’m so glad that no one can see it but then they see my eyes I think they can see all the way in to how I am feeling. The world now has two main groups of people, those who know about me and those who don’t. Strangers don’t make me feel as bad as the people I already know so I am more interested in new people now. Nobody who knows me wants to know me anymore. I’m glad we’re at the lake instead of in the neighborhood. I like the trees a lot and when I look up at them I think about how I would draw them with my compressed charcoal stick from my drawing kit. Everything I see at the lake makes me wonder how I would draw it. What would I have to leave out of the picture. Trees and bushes are so complicated that if you try to draw every branch you will run out of time or light or just give up because it’s too much. The thing about drawing bushes is that there is so much stuff deep inside the bush that you can barely see and you have to decide how much of the tangle that’s in there is necessary for a drawing. Same goes for trees. They have so much stuff happening with the pine cones and millions of needles and branches that I have to decide to leave most of it out. Jon Gnagy says to squint and your eye will automatically simplify things and that works well. You don’t need to draw much of a thing for people to know what it is you’re after but if I want to feel good about the drawing I have to believe that I’ve tried my hardest to get what it is. I took my drawing pad around the shore of the lake a long ways from the pier and the campground. I would try to draw the reflections on the water which was hard because it never is still except in the mornings when it is too cold to draw. The hills and trees on the far side of the lake are nice to draw because they are simple and there is a mist in the air off that way making everything dim and easy. The green begins to turn blue on the hillside but that doesn’t matter to me because I’m drawing in black and white. The more I draw, the better I start to feel. Looking at the pretty trees and the water and the rocks makes me feel like I’m just skipping over people and going straight to God and this is why I like to draw. It just skips over people altogether and everything feels better.
Louis and his wife got in a big argument about him helping too much at our tent so she just packed up their two kids and left. I wish she wouldn’t have done that because Louis never wore a shirt while camping and he is fat with a hairy chest. Maybe it’s just a barrel chest with a beer belly and not real fat, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Louis seemed to be a very strong man judging by the way he was lifting the heavy tents and how hard he worked. He just didn’t look good and he was hanging around our tent too much. It was the second night of five nights at Loon Lake and Mom and Louis suggested I join the girls up at the recreation center. They were playing a lot of my favorite songs on the jukebox: “Personality, “Let the Little Girl Dance,” “Cathy’s Clown,” “Sink the Bismarck,” and a few oldies like “Purple People Eater” and “Hawaii Hula.” Buddy Knox was one of my favorites. The older kids were dancing and Regan and I played blackjack and draw poker. They must have had thousands of chips in the game box.
I liked the pancakes and bacon we had for breakfast. The whole campground smelled like breakfast. I walked down to the shore and there was a mist covering the lake surface. The water was so still it looked like you could walk on it. The loons were crying out in the distance. The sun was coming up over the trees on the far side of the lake. It was a very strong place. There were motor boats tied to the pier. One of them belonged to Louis. It was a polished wooden Chris Craft with bright chrome hardware.
He and Mom arrived at the pier and Louis asked me if I wanted to go for a boat ride. At first I said no because I generally say no to everything but he talked me into it. He sped away from the dock and zoomed around making some tight turns then returned me to the pier. Mom said that she and Louis were going to be gone for quite awhile. They returned in two days very drunk and very apologetic. I don’t think we missed them.
The night Mom and Louis took off for the far side of the lake in the Chris Craft Katy and her new friend Sven asked Teresa, Regan and me and a few other kids, mostly teenagers if we wanted to hike up to the hot springs. I said no but was dragged along anyway and began to enjoy myself. We hiked for more than a mile with flashlights and the light of a bright moon. It was very dark around the springs. We immersed ourselves and began telling jokes. We went all around the group, there were eight of us taking turns. I knew a couple of moron jokes which fell flat. One of the older girls was a camp counselor and she knew a couple of very scary ghost stories. After all of the talking ended we just sat in the pool for the longest time then I felt something cold and wet at the base of my neck. I thought it was Teresa, who was sitting next to me, trying to tickle me but the sensations didn’t add up. It nudged me again. I turned to look and bolted back in the pool and screamed. I couldn’t help myself. A family of deer had come down to the hot springs for their bath or their drink and they found company. My yell scared them back into the woods but we counted four of them. The yearlings stumbled back up the hill in the beam of a flashlight.
Katy slept in my tent anyway after the first night Mom and Louis went across the lake. When they came back, Mom and Louis stayed in his tent drinking all day and that night Mom called Katy into her tent and told Louis to “Take a long walk off our short pier.” Louis skulked up to the recreation hall and Katy and Mom got into one of those life turning-point discussions where Mom felt it necessary to tell Katy the entire story about the Marine pilot and Dad’s forcing her decision. She told Katy right to her face that she hated her ever since that day she had to give up her baby and that that’s why they never got along. She just couldn’t get over it and she didn’t quite know for sure who Katy’s real Dad was. Maybe it was our Dad and maybe it wasn’t. It was after this long night that Katy decided to leave home in Spokane and move to Mountain Home to live with Dad.
The whole mood at Loon Lake got wretched for the last couple of days and even drawing couldn’t help. Mom was complaining about everything and everyone and Louis couldn’t wait to take down his tents and get the hell back home. He hoped his wife wasn’t too angry with him. Mom said the ghosts of the Indians were beginning to eat into her soul and she had to get out of there. ***
We returned home on a Saturday night and Mom put on the robe and took her position. None of us felt like sitting at her feet that night. We were watching television and Mom was drinking and smoking over in the dark in the corner. Mom began to speak over in her darkness. We looked over at her and listened. She was not speaking English. Mom didn’t know any foreign languages to any of our knowledge. She began talking louder and louder in what was beginning to sound like an Asian language. Her lips were pursing together and there were lots of weird guttural sounds not common to the romance languages. Teresa and I stood at her side for a minute listening and looking at each other.
“Mommy!” Teresa said, shaking her shoulder. This gesture had no effect. The talk just got louder and faster. I became frightened. Katy turned on the Wollensak. The hair on the back of my neck stood out as I shook Mother and said “Mother! What’s the matter?” the words just got faster and louder for at least three more minutes until she was leaning forward in a gobbledegook fervor with slobber coming out of the side of her mouth then as I shook her she erupted in a ferocious scream that lasted for ten seconds which is a long time for a scream then she fell back in her big chair and flopped her arms over the sides.
“Whaaaa?” she said.
“Mommy! What were you doing? Do you know what you were saying?” asked Teresa.
“Huh?” she responded.
Mom did not know anything about what had just happened but we had the last few minutes on tape. Later that night at around 3:30 a.m. she woke everyone in the house up and gathered us in the living room.
“I smell brimstone!” she said in a voice that sent chills all through me.
“What does brimstone smell like?” I asked in a timid and confused voice.
“It’s the smell of the devil!” she answered.
“What does the devil smell like?” I countered.
Mom took us all into her bedroom but before we smelled the brimstone she asked, “Where’s Regan?”
Regan was not among us. We ran back upstairs and Regan was not in her bed. Before we got totally alarmed the telephone rang. It was a neighbor down the block who had been awakened by Regan knocking on their door terrified. Regan had a nightmare and had just bolted out of the house and down the block to get away. She knocked on the first door she came to after she stopped running. We all got our clothes on and walked over to retrieve Regan from the neighbors. The smell of brimstone would have to wait but Mom said it was like the smell when you hit two granite rocks together. We all sat around in the kitchen with Regan back at our house and tried to get her to explain her dream. She couldn’t even remember leaving the house. Before we went back to bed Mom said she was awakened by the smell of cigarette smoke and brimstone out her open window. I returned to bed with a fresh set of chills.
“Don’t go back to bed until you have locked all the doors!” Mom commanded. ***
Bud was the happiest person in the entire household, by far. He was at full strength when I was at my very lowest ever. Mom was batting right along getting more an more jumpy and short-tempered and demanding. She decided we were old enough to know the gory details of every humiliation she ever suffered as a child and when she exhausted those stories she moved into her teenage years. We heard the story of the low class underpants twice. She was down at the swimming hole at the John Day River one summer afternoon. No one present but the girls. They decided to strip down for a little skinny-dipping and when the girls saw Mom’s burlap panties they pointed and giggled and made a big deal out of it. She never liked those girls again. When you are at a certain level of the big cement tube you just seem to get drawn deeper into the darkness just by your normal thoughts and behavior. You let people just kick you down lower and lower. Then you either go crazy or you start fighting back, working your way up past all of the little things that humiliated you or made you envious. Like the guy with the candy bar cabinet right in the middle of his living room. He probably never had a candy bar when he was a kid, never had enough money, who knows. Mom’s always had a thing about underwear that goes beyond the normal ambulance contingency. She’s also got a thing about food. She went hungry on many occasions as a child so she works hard for us kids so we are never hungry. She even has credit over at Nevin’s grocery. She says if she’s ever not at home that we can just go over there and charge our food until she gets home. She has never gone for more than a few days at a time and there was always the bran which made hunger a non-issue in our house. She had a thing about always telling us that she loved us because her parents never once told her that they loved her. Mom was always telling us that she loved us and she wanted us at her feet practically every night so she could prove it with educational stories and discussions of great artists and great events like the holocaust, the Roman emperors, especially the more perverse among them. She was delighted and fascinated by perversity. She knew the human mind is a very dark and twisted thing and she liked to discuss examples from throughout history. Sometimes I think she delighted in the absolute weirdness of Van Gogh cutting off his own ear and mailing it to his lover. She had a very deep craving for bizarre fiction and science fiction. She was reading Hellbox when I found her lying at the bottom of the basement stairs. I thought she was passed out drunk. I got her up to the sofa. She staggered over to it and fell down on it where she remained for the next four days. Bud had made enough money to quit work for the season and he was visiting old friends in Topeka. Katy had gotten into one too many scrapes with Mom and moved to Mountain Home to live with Dad for the rest of the summer or until things cooled off in a large sense. After the second day I began wiping brown crud off Mom’s lips every afternoon that had collected during the day. Regan and Teresa just went about their summer business. After Mom’s fourth day on the couch, she still seemed as drunk as the first day. Teresa called Aunt Karen who came over with Coke bottle in hand and decided to call the police. The police came over and called an ambulance and took Teresa and Regan and I down to juvenile hall where I was strip searched and locked into a small cell until further notice. I had to empty all of my pockets into a manila envelope and give them my belt and shoelaces. This was all getting very odd. After two days of peeing into a stainless steel toilet, looking out iron bars and listening to nasty songs from the adjacent cells, such as:
“There is a young whore Maria Santini
Her disease is really a meanie
He stuck his dick in she turned it to gin
And pissed him a double martini.”
I was instructed to get in line, naked, for a gang shower. Lots of horseplay among the delinquents while we stood in line for our shower. The food was big tan lumps of something and canned peas. I was lying on my bunk that folded down from the wall staring up at the bars across the window thinking that it sure was weird that I was down at juvenile hall locked up. I thought for sure it would be Prince or the Calvin brothers or maybe Sherman who would have been the first from our school to get locked up but here I was, listening to the foul language from the boys in the neighboring cells, smelling the Fels Naptha and Pine Sol cleaner. You can always tell the smell of an institution--Pine Sol! They used it at St. Vincent’s Home, they used it at the Hutton Settlement and they were using it here. Pine--the smell of the great outdoors was the smell of being locked up in an institution. I knew I had not done anything wrong. I had not broken any laws but I was treated just like all the other boys who had set fires and stolen cars and beat their parents and slugged teachers. I was glad that I didn’t have to share my cell. I could just lie there and think for hours and it seemed as though I had a lot of things to think about. I spent a little time wondering why my mother was so sick, sicker than normal. Her typical sickness would be coming home the morning after drinking all night, dragging herself across the front door threshold on her hands and knees and sprawling on her back in the middle of the living room crying for a couple of hours but this time was different. She was so quiet, all she did was moan from time to time, and that brown crust around her mouth. She could always say something after a serious breakdown but this time she was silent for days. I wondered where my sisters were. How were they handling being in jail, behind bars. I spent most of my time thinking about how I had to learn to handle being hit in the head. It just scared me to the point where I was helpless. If I didn’t get so scared then I would be able to fight back which would be good. Even if you lose you look good because you fought back. I had to re-learn to fight. I was a good fighter when I was little. I had to get some of that spirit back. I couldn’t just stand there and get destroyed. The crying and begging didn’t help my cause and that would have to stop. I thought about all of the things I had to do next time I was in a fight. I knew that I had to die rather than turn away or say anything about stopping. I had to learn not to be afraid of dying because when you are humiliated you die anyway only you’re not dead. You get to die over and over every day and when kids make fun of you it’s like dying twice or three times in the same day. Why not just fight back or at least shut up and only die one time. That’s the worst that could happen. I would just die one time. The third day I was led out into the lobby where my Dad was waiting to take me out to his car. Teresa and Regan were inside and we compared notes about our days behind bars. Dad had Mother committed to a mental hospital. He was certain that she had another mental breakdown. Dad took us back to the house on Perry where the dogs were starving and we fed the dogs and began packing for our next move. We had lived on Perry for almost a year this was longer than we had ever lived in one place before. It was nice to get to know some kids although it didn’t turn out so good and I was glad to be leaving. Before we left for Mountain Home my Dad drove us out to Eastern State Hospital--Medical Lake. This was the mental hospital for the region. It was Mom’s third or fourth visit. She came down to the lobby to see us. She had made us all little sock monkeys. She told us that she loved us very much and she told my Dad to take good care of us. She had very sad eyes and was not her usual talkative self. Her voice was quiet and mousy. Her hair was in pigtails and she looked kind of like a little girl. As we drove away the sun was setting and we could hear the moaning of the really crazy people. It was six weeks before Mom was diagnosed with a brain concussion. She had not had a nervous breakdown this time. She had a 2” crack in her skull from her fall down the stairs. The drive to Mountain Home took ten hours. The car was crowded with Teresa, Regan, myself, the two dogs Mitzi and Punky and Dad driving like a madman as usual. He drove ninety miles per hour most of the way on the straight stretches and as fast as traction would allow on the curves. We begged him to slow down many times but that just made him speed up. He enjoyed scaring people with his driving, it was part of the macho thing.We arrived at the chicken shack at six in the morning after Dad drove through the night. Our new house was no longer a chicken shack. It had been converted to a very small studio for one person, my Dad. There were going to be five of us plus two dogs for the next three weeks until we moved into our beautiful new trailer. The bathroom was so small that when one of us needs to take a shower we just put the toilet paper out the door and the entire little room is the shower. Everything in the entire room got wet. The towels had to be placed outside the door as well. Dad rigged up a bed for himself in a closet off of the kitchen and the rest of us slept on and around the fold-down sofa. Mitzi and Punky snuggled right in and we were pretty cozy. When I heard the song “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” I thought of Sara and I was beginning to miss her. So much was happening so fast that I didn’t have time to think of her or how many things she did were so nice. I especially loved hugging her while we were in her bed together. The people who owned the house and our shack lived on the same lot just ten feet away from our place. The boy who lived there was a champion high school heavyweight wrestler. He and my Dad would take off their shirts and wrestle on the back lawn and Dad would whip the kid every time. They were very fierce in their matches but the kid was always friendly and respectful in defeat. Dad was still very strong and proud. Dad enrolled Regan and I at Central Elementary grade school. I was now a sixth grader, Regan was fifth. Teresa was still in junior high, ninth grade and Katy was a junior in high school. I did not have a clue what was being taught in the realms of English or math but several of the girls were very nice to me and not only shared their twinkies and cupcakes at lunchtime but offered to help me with grammar and long division as well. I wondered if simply combing my hair made the difference. It was very good to get a chance to start over in a new school with all new kids, five hundred miles away from the scene of my destruction. I was in a reconstruction mode. Just like the beginning of the year at McKinley in the fifth grade. I got to start over. Three weeks later I would get to start over still again. When we walked into our little home after the first day at school we were disappointed to see that Mitzi and Punky had chewed many of my Dad’s books. They chewed his college calculus book, his differential equations book, his physics book, his almanac, a pile of Sports Illustrated magazines featuring his favorite golfer, Arnold Palmer (Dad hit a hole-in-one in a tournament in Australia) and last and worst of all, Dad’s Sydney atlas. The dogs had chewed off an entire leather bound corner of the cover, the corner that had contained his name embossed in gold letters. They chewed through all of the introductions, through Africa, Asia and this was their undoing--Australia. The two-page map of Australia had been chewed to shit. When Dad got home and saw his beloved books he looked angry then sounded sad. He never sounded angry which surprised us. He hardly said a thing. The next day after school, a day during which I won several marbles starting with a borrowed one, Mitzi and Punky were gone. That night when Dad got home from his 100-mile daily commute out to his Titan missile silos we asked him, “Daddy! Where are Punky and Mitzi? “I took them out to a big ranch way up in the hills where they will be very happy. They will get to run around a lot and they’ll have lots of fun.” He didn’t sound very convincing and when we asked to be taken out to visit our dogs and we asked at least every few days for six months, he always made up some excuse why we couldn’t go up and visit them. They were gone for good. Missing in action.*We moved into our 55’-long, 8’-wide brand new mobile home after three weeks of confinement in the shack. The trailer seemed like a very, very fancy place. All new furniture, new fixtures, new walnut veneer (printed on plastic) paneling and it even had wall-to-wall carpet. It was nearly as large as many of our houses in Sunnyside, Richland, Campbell, Cupertino, Australia, Topeka or any of a dozen other houses we had lived in but everything in the trailer was brand new and it smelled new. It had the smell of starting over fresh. Regan and I got to be the new kids again. Twice in one month, a record. West Elementary was my tenth elementary school. These kids were very nice. I made some good friends very quickly and the entire atmosphere of the school seemed light and happy where big, old brick McKinley seemed like a gloomy dark red prison. I was so glad to be here in Mountain Home instead of in the hellhole of Perry Flats. Our trailer court had sixty trailers. It was a mile or so beyond the city limits on the very edge of the desert. The trailer park was bounded by sagebrush desert on three sides and by the interstate highway on the fourth.
I felt immensely liberated to be in Mountain Home living with my father. Although he was practically deaf from his war trauma, he was usually in very good spirits. He didn’t smoke and he only had one or two shots of Jack Daniels a night and one hardly noticed. It helped him forget seeing burning Japanese soldiers jumping into the ocean near Okinawa or the kamikaze crashes that almost killed him a few times or the more debilitating memories of fighting with my mother and her horrible illness. I was concerned about her up there at Medical Lake but I didn’t give her much thought. I was goddamned glad to be in Idaho. I made new friends fast. We played lots of marbles, we played baseball, we ran around in the desert on the weekends building underground forts. Dad bought me a nice set of enamel paints and he encouraged my painting. He always loved the artwork I showed him and he encouraged me to do more. I became the official artist of our gang. We decided to all wear the same style of jacket, a gray windbreaker from Sears and I was going to paint our gang name on the back of the five jackets just like the “Sharks” and “Jets” from “West Side Story.” I spent an entire day painting the jackets. They were so super cool at least until my good friend Wes Coleman pointed out that it was “Vampires” not “Vanpires” as I had spelled it. I got a sinking feeling like the time our rocket blew apart or when I realized our helicopter was going to kill one of us. I painted out the “N” and squeezed “M”s in place. Not quite totally cool but the guys liked them and no one complained.
I love the desert. When the storms drift over and the rain begins, the air fills with the most wonderful smell of sage. The sky is so big. There is room for everyone. Just about everybody appears to be in good spirits. The local economy is booming from all of the new workers who have arrived to build the nine missile silos. Katy’s working as a carhop again at a very popular joint where she meets dozens of airmen from the Mountain Home Air Force base every night and brings home very large cups of tips. She’s getting rich. The guys in the trailer park have included me in their fun right from the start. We’re all new so we all have a good attitude about friends. When we wrestle around it doesn’t get vicious, usually. Dad has plenty of time to take us out to interesting places on the weekends. We visit Bruneau Canyon and go fishing up in the hills to the northeast. Dad bought me a .22 rifle and we have a great time shooting jackrabbits during the beautiful evenings in the wide-open sage country. If you shoot them in the heart they jump straight up then fall over. Dad loves to golf and he’ll drive me out into the desert and just turn the Pontiac over to me while he practices his iron shots. I’ll just drive around by myself for an hour. Dad trusts me. He is so much happier than he was up in Sandpoint. He loves his job as a construction superintendent. He is never happy unless he’s got a hundred or so men who jump when he shows up. He just craves to be in charge of men. He loves to be the big honcho, the boss. He works long and hard and smart to be the boss and he savors the status. He breathes the esteem of others.
Teresa seems to be the only one who isn’t happy. She misses all of her friends from Spokane and she has more trouble than the rest of us making new friends because of her shyness. It didn’t help her much when Dad slugged her in the side of her head and knocked her off of her stool back at the shack. Dad cannot stand the silent treatment and after the dogs disappeared he got some silent treatment from Teresa and she got hit. It was a terrible thing to see and since that blow started her life long schizophrenia he would probably give anything to take it back. Schizophrenia makes my mother’s troubles seem like Sunday in the park.
There is a girl in my class named Ellen Rickenbacker who can draw better than Jon Gnagy. She scares me she is so good. I envy her and I’m amazed by her skill. She knows both perspective and shade and shadow plus she can draw anything she can imagine. If she imagines a girl riding a horse then she can draw the girl and the horse actually riding across the desert past trees and sagebrush. She gets all the details just like Jon except Ellen’s details are so much finer. She is the best artist I have ever known and she sits two desks away. She is also beautiful with long black hair and a great smile. She’s half Cherokee Indian. I wonder if it is in her blood to be such a wonderful talent. I don’t understand how someone so young can know so much. There is just no obstacle of skill between her mind and her paper. She acts like it’s nothing. I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up and she says she wants to be a nurse like her Mom. She draws like Raphael and she wants to be a nurse. Ellen always baffled me. She is left handed like I am and she always chews her right index finger when she draws which is a lot. Her right index finger is one big scar. I ask her why she doesn’t stop chewing her finger and she doesn’t know. What a mystery. I need to know what she knows. I just can’t stand it when someone can draw better than me. I have to learn what they know. I have to be the best. It will be years before I am as skilled as Ellen. She is touched by the drawing angels.
I am so happy, so often I begin to wonder if southern Idaho is heaven. I love being close to my Dad, especially when he is reasonably happy. I love having a clean set of friends who don’t know my secret. I love the weather even now that it is getting colder. I feel free. I can walk anywhere in the trailer park without being afraid of being attacked. There don’t appear to be any juvenile delinquent types anywhere in this whole town. The closest any kids come to being bad is us and I know we’re not that bad. We fight a little but we don’t try to destroy one another. We don’t lie in wait for each other and beat each other senseless. Everything is fair and square around here. The guys seem to actually enjoy having me around. I’m getting to know a lot of jokes, getting most of them from Katy. The gang will go out to our underground fort and smoke a cigarette from time to time. We’re concerned about Walter, he’s up to half a pack a day. We try to get him to quit but he says his Dad makes him nervous.
The desert gets cold during the winter. The two-mile walk to and from school is getting to be a chore. My ears get frostbitten. There are not as many things to do in winter but we manage to have a good time. Friday afternoons are always spent collecting pop bottles. Admission to the movies is a quarter and once the last of us has achieved, lift-off, we’re gone into town. I saw a lot of movies during this time but the most memorable is a weird film with Steve Allen and a group of teens. I had no idea what they were up to but it wasn’t good. It reminded me of one of the “Piss ‘N Popcorn” movies.
It was inevitable. You can’t be as close to horsing around, wrestling, boxing and general schoolyard horseplay as we were every day without getting into a fight. This one started with me coaching one of my buddies who was getting punched in the face. I was upset and scared but I stayed right close to him coaching him, trying to get him to protect himself. Dad had shown me many of his boxing techniques and strategies and I felt like I knew something. I was almost in this fight myself when Benny Cantor suggested since I knew so much why didn’t I step in for Carl, who was getting creamed. This motion was seconded and thirded and fourthed and fifthed. There were fifty kids gathered around by now. I agreed and stood in the clearing surrounded by excited kids from every grade. I had no better luck than Carl. I stood there in my dukes-up position and got hit at least three times very hard in the side of the head before a teacher came out and took us in to see the principal. I was intensely proud of myself for a number of reasons. I fought in the first place, I didn’t panic when I started to get hit hard, I didn’t turn away or run, I just stood there and got punished. I threw a useless punch or two that hit a shoulder but was useless as an opponent. I could return to school the next day and hold my head up. I even had a little bit of status for being in a real fight. There was some debate as to whether I threw any punches at all but to me that was a minor issue. I was able to return to school. The principal called my Dad who had to come over to the school for a conference and he was obviously proud of me for actually getting in a fight. We saw the kid who kicked my ass a few weeks later crossing paths on the sidewalk. I was walking with my Dad and the kid made a demeaning remark to me as he passed. Dad looked down at me.
“Are you going to let him talk to you like that?” he asked in a voice dripping with challenge and disgust.
“I guess so,” I replied, feeling the gravity of my father’s disgust. Dad intensified his boxing instruction.
“Keep your chin down. Circle to the left. Keep your elbows tucked in. Remember the ol’ one, two and the one, two, three; right to the ribs followed by a right to the head then the left cross to the jaw.”
He stressed the importance of not “running out of gas.” When the opponent begins to tire and lower his exhausted arms, you just wade in and finish him off. Dad had a great deal of experience finishing other fighters off and he made it sound so simple.
During the winter Dad would drive Regan and I (Teresa had gone to live with Dad’s parents in San Jose) to Twin Falls, Idaho over a hundred miles away where his current lady friend was living. Her name was Liz. Liz had two sons: Paul, twelve years old and Charlie who was my age. They were both juvenile delinquents. Paul picked fights with boys smaller than himself everywhere we went in Twin Falls which was disgusting and embarrassing to me. Charlie was a very creative thief who had fashioned himself an aluminum faux belly. He would enter a five and dime with his belly covered with a loose Hawaiian shirt and fill it up with toys. They were both snots. I didn’t like anything about either one of them but every other weekend for several months I was in their presence. The drive to Twin Falls was always harrowing. Dad drove eighty or ninety all of the way. The only thing that took my mind off of the scariness of it was when Dad squeezed himself over into his door and let me take the wheel. Steering the old Pontiac at eighty miles per hour was an attention getter. It was quite a thrill. We noticed dozens of dead jackrabbits alongside the road all the way to Twin Falls. The locals called it the “Fur-Lined Highway.” Dad would use these Friday and Sunday drives to discuss various facts of the cosmos. He taught me that if you take the speed you are traveling in miles per hour and add to it one half of the value you will get your speed in feet per second. He stated that if you removed all of the open space from between the orbiting electrons in an atom and the nucleus, in all of the atoms of the earth that you would have a solid mass the size of a basketball. Dad said that if he stretched out his arms and the distance from fingertip to fingertip was the age of the earth then all of recorded history was the depth of his fingerprint. Dad was chock full of knowledge about the universe.
“Daddy, are we driving past where you took Mitzi and Punky?” Regan asked.
“Yeah Dad, we’ve covered all of the distance from Mountain Home all the way to Twin Falls. Are the dogs somewhere on the way where we could stop and visit?”
“The dogs are in the other direction.”
“Yeah but you said they were on a ranch south of town and we’re going south.”
“Drop it,” he said. We dropped it. ***
During the spring the delinquents began coming to Mountain Home with their mother to stay in our trailer for the weekends. The weather was warming up so I could sleep on the grass under the trailer while the snots got my bedroom. I would invite a friend or two over and we had a good time camping out. One Saturday night I introduced Paul and Charlie to my friend Wes and a few others. We scrounged up money for the movies with the pop bottle routine and headed off on the two mile walk into town to see “Caltiki” a frightening creature with a seriously acid eaten face. After the show we walked through one of the finer neighborhoods in town. The homes were brick and flagstone ranch homes with large, well-manicured lawns and big trees. Paul threw a rock into a large window and shattered it. I couldn’t believe he would pull such a stunt. We took off running for our lives and got away. Christ! He was a rotten kid. Stupid, unfriendly, malicious and ugly. This human was a potential new family member--a chilling possibility. On one of the trips to Twin Falls the boys and I went to the movies. They decided to stage a fake beating in an alley near the theater. Little brother was getting “pummeled” and was screaming in the scuffle. No one stopped. Dad liked Fred Elliot a lot. Fred lived on a small plot of land twenty miles from town with his son Will and his wife Nora. Dad liked Fred because he knocked out one of their obnoxious supervisors up at the Air Force Base. Fred walked with a limp and reminded me of Audie Murphy or maybe Robert Mitchum. He was a strong, silent type, very intelligent but quiet. Something deep had bothered or continued to bother Fred. Fred was a veteran of World War II and fought as a soldier in the South Pacific. Dad and Fred shared war stories. Will was sixteen years old and had moved to Idaho from San Francisco to live with his father after a divorce. Will raised rabbits, bunnies not jackrabbits. He had built many pens for his rabbits. He had eighty rabbits in all and was building new cages all the time. The Elliot family ate a lot of rabbit and they all said it tasted like chicken. Will told me stories of the street gangs in his old neighborhood in San Francisco, The White Shoe Gang and the Black Shoe Gang. He said they fought with knives and chains in “Rumbles.” It sounded like Spokane only more organized. Will had a girlfriend and told me that he was having sex with her and said that if she got pregnant he was going to marry her and raise rabbits. He said she worked as a carhop just like Katy and we discussed the enormous amount of money they made in tips. It was a good feeling to be able to carry on a conversation with an older guy. Fred limped out to the rabbit hutches late one afternoon and we saw a snake on the way back to the house. Fred Elliot was terrified of snakes. I never saw a grown man act so frightened. Fred let out a very brief scream that I’m sure embarrassed him as he jumped back from the snake with a look of absolute terror on his face. My immediate thought was that this was something good because I wasn’t afraid of snakes at all. I enjoyed catching the non-poisonous ones and letting them wrap around my arms. There were quite a few nice snakes around the trailer park. So rough and tough Fred, who seemed like a pioneer straight out of the “Sundowners” was more afraid of something than I was. Fred went for a rake, came back to the snake with anger in his face and killed it with great vigor. I was sorry for the snake. Fred limped back to the house and told my Dad how much he hates snakes. Fred had an idea about a new company that would make concrete blocks for all of the Mountain Home region. He wanted to know if Dad wanted to leave the Titan program and start this company with him. Dad declined.
We got invited to social occasions quite regularly. Dad had a few friends from work and they would invite us for dinner. Truman Webster and his wife lived in an old trailer way out of town down a long rutted road, way out in the countryside. Dad, Regan and I arrived at the trailer, a New Moon forty-footer, as the sun was setting. There was blood splattered all over their front yard and especially near the plywood platform on sawhorses. There was blood on the front steps and on and around the door handle. Dad knocked and the door was promptly answered by Truman who was wearing an apron covered in blood. He had a butcher knife in one hand and welcomed us in with a big smile on his face. He had been butchering our dinner, a deer he had shot earlier in the day. He winked at Dad as he told of the hunt and hoped that the game warden didn’t find out. Deer season had ended many months ago. Truman and Winnie prepared the meal as Dad sat in the living room drinking his whiskey. After a quiet meal we said our goodbyes and walked out to the car. Dad was quite angry that I didn’t thank Mrs. Webster for the meal. I said that I didn’t like the deer meat and he said that I should always tell the hostess how much I liked the meal whether I liked it or not. He stayed angry all the way home. He always got angrier than normal after his evening whiskey.
I was doing well in school. We were studying South America and I brought some slides Dad had taken of llamas, villagers, and ancient ruins. When the fifth grade teacher found out that I had been to Australia and Hawaii, Fiji and New Zealand she invited me to her classroom to talk about it. I talked about going to school in short pants and getting caned across the knuckles, about fishing for eels with my mother and catching big lizards with plate shapes on their backs right in the schoolyard. The kids were fascinated and I felt important. There were many opportunities to draw and even though I was not the best in our class, I was still able to illustrate reports and paint murals.
Toward the end of the school year trouble began to accelerate but it was not of a personal nature. It was not related to my increasing or decreasing social status. By this time I was a natural, fully fledged member of the group of boys I hung out with. We were a unit. There is a three story abandoned wooden barracks building about half a mile from the back of the trailer park. Out beyond the park’s stinking open cesspond with the floating rubbers. One Friday night we rounded up about fifteen guys for a game of war and a campout inside the barracks building. It was at least a mile to the highway and over a mile to the nearest occupied base buildings. It was way out in the middle of the sagebrush. All three floors had been removed from this behemoth structure. The inside was hollow with a dirt floor and birds nesting high above. There was enough residual structure left from each floor level so the combatants could climb all the way to the top and circulate at each floor level. We each had at least one toy gun. Many of the toys were tommy guns. There were a lot of six guns. Our war game lasted for a couple of hours until arguments about who shot whom and if they were really dead or just temporarily dead got to be more work than fun. We all gathered on the dirt floor and agreed to build a fire in the middle of the dirt floor. It was dirt. It wouldn’t burn. We fanned out into the desert to gather thick dry sagebrush and miscellaneous scraps of two by fours and two by sixes that were lying around. In a few minutes we had a raging bonfire in the middle of the barracks with flames ten or twelve feet high. The diameter of the fire pit was over ten feet. We began telling our favorite jokes and someone came back from a midnight trek back to the trailer park with a couple of bags of marshmallows. We were having a grand and very independent time. The ornithologist in the group, Alan, decided to pull a lighted two by four out of the raging bonfire and ascend up into the rafters to look at the birds nests he had seen earlier but was too busy dodging the enemy to inspect. He set the rafters on fire and hollered down to warn us. We were watching it all happen anyway and didn’t need the warning. Alan scampered back down and we watched the flames spread across the roof. It was an amazing sight and we were all transfixed. Our huge shadows were leaping across the walls. Our faces were lit from the flames. When the first flaming wood began to fall we left the building. Just as we all convened about fifty feet away to watch the spectacular fire the Highway Patrol car arrived. A couple of guys slipped away into the desert but most of us just waited in line to give the officers our names and addresses. We all watched the building burn for at least half an hour then someone asked the police if they were going to call the fire department. They would just let the building burn itself out. They weren’t going to waste the fire department’s time. It was too remote to fight with a truck anyway. The officers told us that they would be visiting each of our homes to discuss the dire situation at greater length. Waiting for that visit really put a damper on the prospect of school getting out and summer beginning.
For reasons I will never know or understand my best friend Wes Coleman and I took a dozen extra large eggs from his refrigerator one afternoon and threw all twelve of them as far as we could at other trailers in the park. We hit several and made several messes. The victims determined the source of the egg trajectories and convened on Wes Coleman’s trailer later that evening to confront Wes’s father. Wes was given the most severe punishment I ever heard of. He was confined to his yard for the entire summer. My Dad never found out about the egg incident and I was never punished for my part. I felt a new sort of guilt with my best friend in huge trouble and myself scot free except for my conscience. Things were beginning to pile up. The weekend after school was over a group of us decided to go rabbit hunting right behind the trailer park. We were going to use Alan, the ornithologist’s .22 bolt-action rifle. Little Charlie my Dad’s girlfriend’s son was carrying the rifle through the barbed wire fence that surrounded the trailer park when he accidentally fired it into Bruce Belson’s upper thigh. Charlie dropped the rifle and took off running. Bruce’s trailer was less than one hundred yards away. We carried him home and after his mother calmed down, she called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital. He was fine. Charlie and his Mom had to go down and talk to the police. I was getting tired of sleeping under the trailer for the twerps especially if they were going to be stupid. The wrestling, boxing, tousling matches continued. I was doing okay. One time when I had one of the guys down I reached around and slugged him in the balls. He started screaming and ran away. I went over to his trailer the next day to see if he wanted to play but he wouldn’t even come to the door.
The Titan missiles that would occupy the nine silos that Dad was building would be aimed at Moscow, Kiev, St. Petersburg and other Soviet cities. These silos and their contents would be our link to the culture of the Soviet Union. We had B-52s to the north, at the air base and there would be Titans fifty miles to the south, way out in the middle of nowhere. We practiced our nuclear attack drills in school. Hide under your desk, do not look in the direction of the blast! The airmen were on alert much of the time and this included the patrons of the Dairy Delight where Katy met her new steady Dale. Dale looks like Richard Starkweather. He had to pull off his belt one night and wrap it around his fist to scare off some high school locals who were giving Katy some kidding about her bustline. Once he had defended her honor in public he was halfway to being her steady guy. Katy began seeing less and less of her friends from high school and more of Dale and his buddies. The weekend after school ended for the year Katy and her friends had a big party at our trailer. I was asked to spend the night elsewhere as was Regan. Katy left her friends at our trailer at around midnight to go to a local motel with Dale and her friends continued to party until far into the night. They tore our trailer apart. They burned holes in the furniture, they wrote on the mirrors with lipstick unfriendly references to Katy’s defection from their crowd and they ate the food and dirtied the dishes and scratched the paneling and left potato chip bags and Coke bottles and beer bottles and ashtrays and plates full of cigarette butts. If Katy had seen the devastation first she could have done something but Dad returned early from Twin Falls and the delinquents after calling it quits. Wow! I returned just after Dad and we waited for Katy to show up from her visit with Dale. Dad had a very deep aversion for rowdiness and low-life and it was plastered all over his home. He asked Katy what kind of people she had been associating with and asked her what kind of friends would do such a thing and he wanted their names and he was going to press charges. He hollered and stormed for at least an hour until he poured himself a drink and left the premises. He gave Katy two hours to clean the place up. He told me and Regan to go out to the car. We went to the movies while Katy cleaned up the mess her “friends” had made.
I loved shooting jackrabbits and I loved the smell of gunpowder from a freshly fired round. No, I wouldn’t like it if someone shot me while I was hopping around at dusk in the sagebrush trying to find something to eat. It was one of the few things Dad and I did together. He enjoyed it too. He would get so excited sometimes that he would ask for some of my bullets after he used up his share. The overall excuse for shooting these critters was that the Australians had let someone bring a single pair of rabbits into their country during the late nineteenth century and they multiplied until they overran the farmlands and destroyed crops. The Australians suffered from their rabbits and we were not going to let that happen in southern Idaho. Sometimes we went hunting at night. We sat on the front bumper of a car and drove very slowly on the dirt paths through the desert hills. When we saw a pair of red eyes in the distance, we aimed right in between. If the reds jumped straight up that was a sign that you shot a rabbit. We usually went hunting on weeknights after Dad returned from work. The desert was beautiful in the evening as the sun was setting and when we hunted near farmland, the smell of the crops in a light drizzle was exquisite. There was always a vista, always lots of space. The colors were subtle, soft greens. The sky was blue gray and when it hung low the fields were dark but the rabbits were there and we shot them.
One evening in early summer Dad bought a dozen balsa wood gliders that cost five cents each. The wings were thin as paper and connected to the skinny fuselage by a red plastic connector about an inch long. Half the time we would crack the edges of the wings as we forced them into the red connector. Dad drove us out to a ridge top with a grand vista of a great desert valley. We could see sheets of rain falling in the deep distance. We tossed the gliders one at a time and watched their gentle, swooping flight down into the valley. Each glider soared for many minutes in great descending arcs. The air was warm and clean and fragrant and we were very happy.
When we went trout fishing, it was in places where I wouldn’t fall behind in scratchy undergrowth. There was plenty of room on the stony banks. Dad didn’t go running off, disappearing into the distance. We were right there within sight of each other catching fish after fish. Beautiful brown trout. Dad cleaned them and fried them up for dinner. He loved a cold beer with trout. After dinner Dad would write out a few math problems for me to struggle with that invariably involved a large tank of water and two spigots of varying diameters, one was filling the tub and one was draining the tub and there were two little swimmers going two different directions with the wind blowing fifteen knots out of the northwest and I was supposed to calculate which of the swimmers would drain out onto the pavement first or some such foolishness. He loved to show me the answers. He also loved to multiply mass times acceleration like it was a prayer that would save you from being an ordinary carpenter or welder or bricklayer or plumber or auto mechanic. Dad would always say how important all of these people were to our way of life but if you wanted to get down to the “nut cuttin’” you had to know about mass and acceleration as well as velocity. Knowing about women was a far distant second or maybe even third in things to know about. A man had to know how to mobilize machinery. He had to know all about concrete and soil strength, about cubic feet per second of water past a point in a river. If a man was going to harness nature, he had to know some of nature’s secrets. A man had to know all about roads, their curves and slopes and grades and the depths of their layers and their degree of compaction. A man had to know about wind and sun and all about steel: steel beams and steel piling and steel reinforcing bars, about welding and cutting and bolting. Earth, concrete, steel and the machinery and tools for their use: this was very important. All of the underlying mathematics of cut and fill and strength of materials and the dynamic forces on a structure were important. Women and dogs were not as important. Daughters were expendable, sons had to be taught to fight. The world is a very tough place and one had to go armed with mathematics, physics and muscle power. A man had to tie into challenges. A man had to move the earth. Man was designed to build things and a few men were leaders and the rest of the sorry lot were followers. Dad was a self made leader of men and if he wasn’t leading men, he was miserable, his drinking increased and he became more irritable. Dad had a way with words. If something was slippery it was “slicker ‘n seven kinds of owl shit, richer than six feet up a bull’s ass or hotter than a popcorn fart.” The Japanese tried to kill him for four years, they failed and he was going to move the earth and the rivers that flowed upon it. Dad loved fighting the cold war as he loved the hot war. He loved action and big things that moved. The part of a person’s mind that allows them to relax and feel satisfied was absent. Dad had to keep moving like a shark or he would surely drown. He had to move fast. His whiskey would put on the brakes before sleep but when he was rested he was a relentless dynamo. He was essentially a very friendly man and his men loved him. If you were not his man but a rival there would always be a showdown. Dad was not a schemer or a plotter or a backstabber. If there was ever any question about who the top dog was there would always be a confrontation. Dad lost a lot of these over the years but he usually came out on top. Dad was a team player: he was the quarterback and everyone else was the rest of the team. He would remain in games where he was quarterback all others dissolved quickly and he moved on. He had the drive of a very strong willed, intelligent enlisted man who was the victim of haughty officers throughout his Navy career and as a civilian he would not be discriminated against because of his rank. His ambition, once he recovered from heartbreak, was vast.
If you have never seen a B-52 bomber you have no way to know how big it is. It is the Grand Coulee Dam of aircraft. When you are walking around one of these gargantua, walking way out to the tips of the seriously drooping wings past the four large jet engines, two per pod on each wing, you are in awe of technology, in awe of the mind of man. If this monster did not fly it would be an amazing thing, it flies. These rolling buildings take off, they leave the ground and they fly. Things that fly also crash. When a B-52 lifts off and rolls too steeply and one wing drops toward the ground and it disappears into its own fireball and black smoke in a thunder so loud it is every thunderstorm at once it is as if hell has risen from its hole and swallowed the best and the biggest. It is unforgettable. The B-52s of Mountain Home air base were an incredible sight. Rock Hudson and Hollywood were captivated by the power but film does not begin to capture the gut tumbling rumbling roaring majesty, the danger. Dad’s base of operations was not far from the runway. He spent ninety five percent of his time out at the silo construction sites but he had access to the base with his badges and various authorizations. I felt like a prince walking with him to his office in sight of the B-52s. I felt like the luckiest kid with the most powerful, capable Dad. He was an important fighter in the cold war. Wow! If Bud could only see all of this. Dad was so connected to the American nervous system, to the important things, the jets, the missiles, the steel! I drew pictures of planes and missiles and space capsules by the hundreds. Dad would sit with me and he would show me how to calculate the escape velocity of a rocket on its way into orbit around the earth. He showed me the relationship between lift, thrust and drag and the Bernoulli effect that lifts an airplane wing. I had an electric train and we would put the track out on the floor of the trailer for a couple of hours. He would put his chewed up physics and math books under the tracks until the little, black electric engine began to fall back then he would show me how to calculate the horsepower of the engine while I was wondering what had happened to our dogs.
Mom never called us or wrote to us. Bud never called us or wrote to us. I didn’t know if they were dead. I had not heard that either one of them was dead so I assumed they were alive. The dogs, I assumed, and as we discussed among ourselves, were dead. Elvis was out of the Army. He was different. Alan Shepard was a hero. John Kennedy was speechifying to popular effect. The Shirelles were at the top of the charts with a name that sounded like a new model car. Almost all of the men in the families that lived in our trailer park worked on the Titan project. It was a vast construction project that sucked all of the workers from the recently completed Glen Canyon dam into southern Idaho. Several of my friends had fathers who were former dam workers in Nevada/Arizona now working as carpenters or ironworkers or pipefitters, truck drivers, electricians or heavy equipment operators. They were all fighting the cold war. It was interesting to me that, unlike Bud, these men worked hard all year long, year after year. They did not appear to be unhappy. They were very glad to have jobs. With my friend Wes truly confined to his yard (his father wasn’t joking) I was missing my best buddy for desert hikes, catching ground squirrels, snakes or buffalo ants. I was forced to get a job since there were so many drinkers of soda pop we could always round up enough change to see the movies that appealed to us but I decided I wanted more income so I decided to mow lawns. This lasted for only a couple of days. Most of the grass in the trailer park yards was full of rocks so not amenable to a mower of any kind.
We received letter from Teresa from time to time and in her latest we got word that Mom was alive and well in Seattle living with friends from her years in the Navy. She had been out of the mental hospital for several weeks and she and Teresa were having a great time exploring a big new city. Teresa was taking ballet again and Bud was living in a hotel downtown and visited them often. Teresa said Mom would write soon and she hoped all was well. A week after Teresa’s letter Katy told us that Dad told her that Mother had hired a lawyer and she was trying to get us back and Dad had hired a lawyer and he was not going to let us go back. I loved Mountain Home and I loved having friends who respected me. I loved so much about the place even though it could get dull on long summer afternoons. It was a place where you could walk around outdoors and not fear for your health. The wonderful desert was our back yard. We were close to great canyons and rivers and beautiful farmland. I loved playing marbles and kick the can, telling jokes with my buddies until the sun came up on our backyard campouts. We had forts, we had adventures, we had great freedom to roam around and dream. Mountain Home was a place where you could just lock into a rhythm of comics, movies, model planes, guns, and the occasional smoke. Few things were better than being in a cool, underground fort with a plank roof covered with insulating sod shooting the bull with friends and having a smoke from a homemade corncob pipe. It was the stuff of great living. We were living a life with the best of Tom Sawyer only without Aunt Polly. Dad pretty much left me to my own devices.
I was sawing a length of two by six lumber in the front yard of our trailer on Wednesday morning during the third week of June. I was making a wheeled vehicle of some sort. A black 1936 Chevy coupe skidded to a halt just beyond our front gate. I looked up when I heard my name.
“Jimmy! Jimmy come here!”
I could see a woman leaning out the back window. She had jet black hair in pigtails.
“Jimmy! Come quick!”
When I was about ten feet from the car I recognized my mother and I had the strangest mixture of gladness and surprise and shock.
“Hi honey! Where’s Regan? Quick--where’s Regan? “ “She’s inside,” I answered nervously, wondering what the hell was happening.
“Go get her. Quick honey, get Regan!”
I dutifully entered the trailer and called Regan. Regan came back out with me and Mom said, “Hurry kids! Get in!”
She opened the door and grabbed us toward her. We scrunched over her legs. Katy appeared at the door of the trailer.
“Mother! What are you doing?” Katy screamed through her teeth.
“Don’t call your father, please don’t call your father!”
The car sped off in a spray of gravel and some fishtailing. I was genuinely frightened at this time. I just then recognized that the getaway driver was Bud with his Chesterfield dangling from his lip. He was driving too fast for the trailer park. When he exited onto the asphalt he really opened that little Chevy up for all it was worth. He soon made a wrong turn and we were heading up toward the main gate to the airbase. Katy had immediately called Dad and he was in his Pontiac racing back to the trailer park. Our cars passed at sixty on the road to the main gate. Mom saw Dad. Bud slammed on the brakes and raced back out to the main highway north to Seattle. The race was on.
(age nine to ten)